I met Ana Lizbeth Bonía, 28, from Comayagua, Honduras, at La Casa del Migrante Diócesis in Juárez, Mexico, near the U.S. border. Ana arrived at the shelter days away from giving birth, having traveled for ten months with her two-year-old son, José Luis, and her husband, Luis Orlando Rubí, 22. They had fled Honduras with 500 lempira (equivalent to $21) in their pockets, in an effort to escape threats of violence from a gang that had tried to extort Luis, who ran a business fixing cell phones.
Their journey to Juárez lasted nearly a year because whenever the family ran out of money, they begged in the streets or found a place to work, staying in one city or another until they could afford to move on. She and Luis discovered that migrant shelters were often run for profit, and that to eat or shower, the shelter would charge them money.
Like many migrants, Ana had fled the threat of violence in her home country, but she also desperately wanted her children to have access to a good education. "My mom took me to work when I was four years old," Ana told me. "She had a vegetable and fruit business, and she would send us kids out to the street with baskets." Ana attended elementary school but was forced to drop out after that to help support her family. She wanted her children to have a different life.
When it came time for her to give birth, she told the workers at at La Casa del Migrante Diócesis that she didn't want Luis to be present; nobody knew why. When her newborn, Nicole, was fifteen days old, Luis had a violent fight with Ana. He was asked to leave the shelter for breaking the rules.
That day, Ana walked around with red scratch marks on her neck, saying, "I don't know where he is going. He will not return." Later, over plates of beans and squash and tortillas, she told me that another migrant had told her that Luis had planned all along to leave her and the children and cross the border alone. When she confronted him about the rumor, they fought.
After this, Ana no longer spoke about Luis, and I was aware that I would never know the true nature of their relationship. Traffickers often arrive with women they have prostituted along the migrant trail, leaving the pregnant women behind so that the shelter will cover the costs of the birth. "Maybe they are not related," Father Javier Calvillo Salazar, the director of the migrant shelter, speculated when I asked if he was worried about Ana since her husband had left. "They don't have any legal documents — no marriage registry, no birth certificate." And then he began to talk about how human trafficking was a bigger business than the drug trade. "Every migrant is a story, and you know the journey for many of them is similar — all the loss, all the pain, all the suffering," Father Javier said. "That is precisely the reality."
As more migrants arrived at the shelter, they began to share their stories with me. I listened to them all without question — even when they seemed too surreal to be true. One story in particular came to represent the difficulty of learning and understanding the truth at the shelter:
A pregnant woman on the migrant train La Bestia began to have contractions. "She screamed for help, but people began to move away from her," Father Javier recounted. "Her water broke and blood began to flow. The baby slid out, but at the time, the train stopped, the door opened. Blood flowed out, water flowed out, and then suddenly a crocodile appeared and ate the baby."
"Every migrant is a story, and you know the journey for many of them is similar — all the loss, all the pain, all the suffering."
The migrant population has experienced such levels of violence that trauma and fear influence every aspect of their transient lives. "You have to think about everything migration implies — rape, extortion, getting shot. Anyone who survives says that the experience of riding La Bestia is terrible," Father Javier said.
Of the crocodile eating the baby, he commented, "I remember clearly the testimony of that woman. You might say, 'Oh, my, good heavens,' but you discover that other migrants tell similar stories."
I would hear more stories about crocodiles along the marshy route. But I still had trouble judging what was real. After living at the migrant shelter for two weeks, the one thing I came away understanding was the level of violence migrants suffered at the hands of gangs in their home countries and at the hands of human traffickers along the migrant trail.
"I am doing it for my daughter," Anahí Ortigoza Reyes, 34, from Huajuapán de León, Mexico, told me of her attempt to cross to the United States. She had arrived at the shelter distraught after being separated from her four-year-old, Ashley Anahí.
Anahí had hired smugglers to guide her and her daughter to the United States. But the smugglers took her daughter across the border first, dropping Anahí near a border wall with wire cutters and instructions to cut holes through various chain-link fences. Anahí was picked up by border agents and returned to Juárez, where she ended up in the migrant shelter.
We sat in the shelter's TV room in front of a mural that read "No human is illegal." She told the group of migrants there that she thought the smugglers had used her to distract border agents so they could move drugs across. She had let the smugglers take her daughter by herself, because, according to them, it would be easier to get them through separately. "When you trust people," Anahí said, "they take you to the slaughterhouse in order to do their business."
Getting Ashley Anahí back to Mexico would not be an easy task, because she had no birth certificate or passport with her in the United States. Perhaps out of fear of being judged as a bad mother, Anahí initially told us that her daughter was in the United States with her husband. However, when Father Javier talked to authorities to try to get Ashley Anahí back to Mexico, he was told that the man who had the girl in the United States had no blood relationship to the girl. U.S. authorities wanted to charge him with kidnapping.
"Who was he?" I wondered. Anahí didn't talk about him. The last thing she told me was, "My daughter is there alone in a place she doesn't know, another country, another language. And she is asking [after me], '¿Y mi mamá cuándo viene? ¿Y mi mamá cuándo viene?'"
Dr. Alice Driver is a journalist and translator based in Mexico City. Driver is a 2017 Foreign Policy Interrupted fellow. She is reporting on migration from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador for Longreads Originals.