Rivers, gangs and death: A perilous migration to the US

The morning mist cloaked the small boat as it carried 14 migrants across a river from Guatemala to Mexico at the start of a long and uncertain journey towards the United States -- if gangs don't get them first.

"We left, but who knows if we'll come back," one of the men whispered as the boat crept along the San Pedro river with a handful of the estimated 140,000 people, mainly Central Americans, who enter Mexico every year to pursue the distant American Dream.

Sailing from a remote location known as "Los Naranjos" in Guatemala, nearly all the travelers remained quiet, refusing to give their names, origin and destination to AFP reporters riding the single-engine boat with them on a river haunted by reptiles.

The passengers included one woman and seven youths who appeared to be minors. Their silence reflects a fear of being heard by one of the "halcones," or hawks, who work as informants for the mafias that prey on vulnerable migrants.

At least 20,000 migrants are kidnapped each year on the perilous trek through Mexico, a nation plagued by violence perpetrated by drug cartels. Many are robbed, raped, murdered or forcibly recruited by the gangs.

Despite the dangers, migrants like the 14 on the river boat continue to take the risky route north, hoping to leave behind life of poverty and violence in Central America.

As US lawmakers debate reforming immigration law to bring 11 million undocumented migrants out of the shadows, one of the San Pedro river travelers spoke of his dream of reaching Los Angeles to plant chilies in the United States.

"There's land to work in my country, but people with money are grabbing it and the poor like us have to step aside," said Aurelio, a 45-year-old man from Honduras, a nation terrorized by gangs that have turned it into one of the most dangerous places on Earth.

"We have to pay a 'war tax.' If you don't, the gangs kill you," said the soft-spoken migrant with a cowboy hat under the searing tropical heat. "My dream is to have a decent job because that's what my parents taught me."

As the small boat passed by a corral with around 10 cows, Aurelio looked on and said: "This is my job, cattle farming. What am I going to do now?"

Aurelio, who refused to give his full name, was sad to have left his wife behind. He was traveling with a nephew and his 22-year-old son David, who made it to the United States on his own last year.

David's hope of becoming a mechanic was dashed when he was detained in Houston, Texas, and deported a few months later.

"Our hands and feet were cuffed the whole time in jail," David said as he emptied the water that was accumulating inside the boat.

"For a dad it is hard to lose your son," Aurelio said. "It's better to accompany him and not stay."

Tough immigration laws in Mexico and the United States compel people to cross the borders illegally, he said.

"What crime is it to try to improve your life, only to find death," he said.

Wilmer Henriquez, a 32-year-old pilot of another boat who takes migrants to the border town of Tenosique, took the trip north himself once.

"I walked and walked until I arrived in Los Pozos, a small town in Tabasco," he said, referring to the southeastern Mexican border state.

Once there, he said, migrants pay "coyotes," or smugglers, for the right to hop onto a freight train known as "The Beast," which is famous for transporting countless people from southern Mexico to the US border.

The train trip is full of dangers, with many riding on the roofs of freight cars. Henriquez said a Honduran woman was killed under the wheels of "The Beast" when she fell while trying to get on as the train moved.

"I had extended my hand to her and I wanted to pull her up, but she went under and ended up in four pieces. So much blood. It was tough," he said.

At one stop, a group of men armed with machetes ordered dozens of people to get off one of the freight cars, he said. The men were told to give up all their belongings while women were taken away.

The Zetas, a powerful cartel founded by former Mexican special forces soldiers, was suspected of being behind the heist, Henriquez said.

People usually pay a coyote to get on the train and the smuggler then pays off the conductor. "But then the Zetas give more money to the conductor in order to give up the freight cars filled with people," Henriquez said.

In some towns, people threw rocks at the passing train.

During his voyage, Henriquez hid from authorities in a swamp where he was bitten by leeches and another time, near the US border, in sewer water. He went days without food or water, braving cold weather.

He finally reached Houston, but he was detained by US authorities the same day as he spoke on a public telephone.

For Aurelio, it was only the start of the voyage. As his boat reached the shore, he adjusted his hat and stepped on Mexican soil, where a smuggler was waiting to take people in a pick-up truck.

"We go by the grace of God," he said as he headed off on the next leg of his journey.