Rebecca (one-year-old) sits on the bed that she and her mother Sandra share in Ixtapec. They are from El Salvador and are fleeing the violence in their country. Rebecca had two uncles who were murdered by the mara gangs and one who was recruited into a mara gang - they have not seen him again since that day. They await papers at a refugee centre, known in Mexico as an alberge.
Migrants passing on “La Bestia”: the beast, a freight train that traverses Mexico from the southern to the northern borders of Mexico. The journey is fraught with danger least of all from falling off and being injured on the train. The route it takes is littered with migration police, cartel and military all of who want to exploit those riding it.
Juan - no last name - is 21 years old and from El Salvador. He was born and lived on the streets with his mother until she died when he was 6 years old. At this time he was found by MS13 gang members and he was forced to become a spy, informing on the other major Mara gang M18. He spent 15 years working with both Mara groups; Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Calle 18 (M18) street gangs as a spy.
In order to cope with the stress of exposure and involvement to violence and killing, he took drugs and self harmed; evidence of which he bares today in rows of cigarette burns all over his body.
He is making the journey across Mexico to begin again to start a new life without violence. He hopes to experience love and peace for the first time in his life.
Yamileth aka 'Siniestro' (sinister in English) is a 42-year-old ex-convict and ex-bandilla M18 member.
A female gang member is known as a Jaina - similar word for hyena. Yamileth was rare in that she was accepted into the M18 gang even though she is a lesbian, which is usually not tolerated. She was initiated in high school.
She started to kill when she was 16 years old. She would nurse wounded M18 members and store weapons in her home. She quickly became a senior member of the M18 gang. She described in great detail the way in which they would hunt, torture and kill their adversaries the MS13 members or those deemed betrayers.
She was convicted for first-degree murder and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Upon release she found all the gang members she used to work with and who she considered family, were dead. This was and is her opportunity to exit the M18 gang life: anonymity. She now lives a peaceful life and hopes to reunite with her children.
Eric is 35 years old. He is a 'coyote' or 'pollero'; meaning someone who transports or traffics people from Honduras to the United States illegally. He's done the trip 12 times and usually takes two or three people on each trip. He was kidnapped by the Zetas in 2007 for 7 days and by The MS13 in Mexico in 2004.
His brother-in-law, Mauricio, was a coyote as well but quit his occupation when he witnessed the murder of a child by the cartel. He had tried to intervene but they beat him up and pushed their fingers into his eyes, blinding him for two days and that was when he escaped.
A small group of refugees travel across the Suchiate river which sits between the border of Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas Mexico and Tecun Uman, Guatemala. They travel by two giant inner tubes with planks of wood tied to them to make a raft. Their journey across the river is taken very close to the international bridge, which is the legal access to Mexico.
Doris Zulema Brito Hernandez, aged 53, has been charged with Fraud and Human trafficking.
Doris and her husband arranged to take a trailer full of 74 people to Texas in 2003. Of those 19 suffocated, including a 5 year old child. She was arrested at the airport in San Pedro Sula. Family members of those who died filed their reports with the police in separate cities so she was charged in separate states for the same crime. She has three sentences totalling 29 years, which has since been reduced to 22. She has already served 11 years in Tamara Women’s Prison near Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
They never arrested her husband because they couldn’t find him even though he would visit her in prison. He has since passed away. Their two children are currently wards of the state of Florida.
Olman Orlando aka 'Danger' shows his lip tattoo. ‘Yefny’. He is a prisoner at Danli Prison in Honduras. Upon release he plans to travel like most refugees through Mexico to the United States.
Laura was part of a large group of seven people traveling together who are all from the same neighborhood in San Pedro, Honduras. We followed them from their arrival at the Succhiate river for the next 24 hours. After arriving in Mexico they spent three hours walking through Tapachula in the rain trying to find shelter. After evading a tip off from the bus driver to the migration police they were stranded on the roadside a half an hour walk outside Tapachula.
Malgda Corales is 34 years old. She started her training to get into the M18 at the age of 12 and was initiated at the age of 13. She learned how to shoot a gun, assemble guns, and how to kill in order to be an active member of the group.
At 16 she was arrested for several murders and sentenced to 18 years jail. She killed MS13 as well as regular people.
She has been moved several times around the various prisons of Honduras. Because she dresses like a man the guards beat her like a man. She has been tortured repeatedly in all of the prisons.
She is now in maximum security because the M18 want to kill her for trying to leave the group. She has endured several assassination attempts in prison. She has survived 7 gunshot wounds. Human rights organisations attempted to get her out of prison so the penal system sent her to solitary so that the human rights group couldn’t access her. The isolation and abuse is too much so she has tried to kill herself.
She is now about to be released from prison and wants to be out of the bandilla and hopes to reintegrate into society. However now that she has tried to leave M18 and they still want to kill her she plans to make the journey through Guatemala and Mexico and hopes to get political asylum in the United States.
‘I don’t want to kill any more and I don’t want to be killed.’
A one year old girl has traveled with her 18 year old mother from El Salvador. They are staying at the alberge in Tenosique to rest before they continue their journey to the United States.
Mauricio is 25 years old and from Honduras. He has spent several years traveling back and forth on “La Bestia” the freight train called “the Beast” through Mexico, but has never made it to the United States. He survives by begging.
Elisabeth and her son David (14) sit together in the morning before David goes to work to sell mandarins. David is extremely intelligent and the Maras in El Salvador wanted to recruit him in 2015, so they left with only $5 USD.
They slept on the streets and traveled by foot for 40 days. They were deported from Tapachula once. Along their journey two Central American men assaulted them by knifepoint. The men took all their money and sexually assaulted Elisabeth. They have been in the alberge for 20 days and are awaiting a humanitarian visa. She’s has been sexually harassed in the alberge and doesn’t really feel safe but they need to await their visa’s before they can leave. She wants work as a chef and send her son to school.
Karla Mariana has travelled to Tenosique from Honduras. She has been feeling unwell in her pregnancy, so she is resting on the concrete floor of the Alberge. Two of her 5 children rest near her.
A Honduran refugee continues his journey after resting in the Alberge in Ixtapec
A migrant awaits a consultation with a Medicos Sin Fronteras doctor in the alberge, Tenosique.
Most refugees suffer from some sort of psychological stress or trauma through their journey, not withstanding any physical harm or injury along their travels.
Wendy an ex-MS13 member says “... I wanted to kill my sister, so I did and before I could kill my brother I was arrested.”
When she was 12 years old both her parents were arrested and then she went to live with her sisters. Her brother tried to rape her, so she began to turn to the MS13 gang as a family. With them she felt supported. Once she became a MS13 member – she started using drugs and so she was locked out of her sister’s house.
One night she kicked the door to get in and went to bed. Not long after she heard voices of men who broke into the house – all of them raped me and they stole everything. Three days later her sister found her and didn’t believe what she said had happened and accused her of stealing from them. ‘Because they didn’t believe me I wanted to kill my sister, so I did. And before I could kill my brother I was arrested.’
She has now ‘found Jesus’ and so she burnt her MS13 tattoos off herself in order to disassociate with the gangs. Having done this she risks being killed by other MS13 gang members as this is seen as a betrayal of her loyalty to the gang.
A refugee man comforts his wife. Their journey has been long, difficult and traumatic. This is only the beginning of their travels as they still intend to head north to the United States from Ixtapec - near the border of Mexico and Guatemala.
Fourty-Seven year old Luis is from Guatemala.
Two months prior he was chased by migration agents near the river and fell down the cliff landing in some rocks. He woke up 9 days later in hospital with half his face paralyzed and four skull fractures. Flesh from his leg had been ripped off.
He wants to go to the US to find his son who is in the army but doesn't know how to find him. He was fine and healthy before this accident. He wept, “this accident, this journey has changed my life forever."
Prisoners locked up in Danli Prison, Honduras.
Laura Avila is 51 years old and from Honduras. A year ago she lost her leg on the train ‘La Bestia’ in Torreon Coahuila. "I left my country to get a better life and I'm returning worse off"
Emerita de Jesús Palma is 79 years old.
Three months ago, she traveled all the way alone from El Salvador to Mexico to find her son who is working in a banana plantation in Chiapas, but she got lost on the way. Due to her age she is applying for humanitarian visa as a vulnerable refugee and waiting authorities help to find her son.
Caught. Two adolescent boys being escorted by the Mexican Military to the Migrant police for deportation back to Honduras.
The white crosses signify the unmarked resting place of John Doe illegal refugees found dead in Texas trying to find refuge in the United States