The Stories Of Central American Immigrants That Most News Sources Won’t Tell You About

Published March 27, 2015
Updated March 9, 2015
Published March 27, 2015
Updated March 9, 2015
death train caught and deported

Being caught by Mexican police almost always means deportation back to Central America. Business Insider

We hear about the “problem” of illegal immigration every day either through news broadcasts or mind-boggling statistics, but what does the process actually look like to those participating in it? Photographer Michelle Frankfurter set out to answer just that, spending five years documenting the sometimes fatal journey that many migrants take from Guatemala to Mexico–all in hopes of landing in the United States.

death train jumping on

The race to board a freight train in Arriaga. Business Insider

This dangerous trek starts by crossing the Suchiate River, which most manage via “rafts” made of giant tires and pallets. Those that make this initial leg of the trip land in Hidalgo, Mexico, where they embark on a 150 mile hike (to avoid Mexican checkpoints) toward the city of Arriaga. It is here where they usually jump onto the first train that will take them through the rest of the grueling trip.

death train tire rafts

Taming the Suchiate River on tire rafts. Business Insider

It’s not close to being over, though; travelers will have to jump at least 10 more trains in the process. The danger of these trains is not to be underestimated; every year many people are injured or even killed by sliding off rain-soaked train roofs or being knocked off by low-hanging tree branches.

death train woman feeding child

A woman named Rosalie uses a shelter to nurse her son after making the hike to Arriaga. Frankfurter saw this family making the trip a couple times.Business Insider

Finding shelter while on the tracks is uncertain at best. Local churches will provide some semblance of shelter, or at least a place for travelers to lay their head for a few hours. Frankfurter became well known at these establishments over the five years she spent documenting the migrants (many of whom are children) and their expeditions.

death train traveling together

Traveling together on El Tren de la Muerte. Loeildela Photographie

The grueling train trip ends in Northern Mexico near the areas of Chihuahua and Coahuila, both of which are dominated by drug cartels that control the passage of goods – and people. Migrants pay large chunks of money to the cartels for safe passage across the border, or for settlement in a safer Mexican town. The few travelers that make it this far often get caught and deported, which is why many decide to stop at Mexico and apply for licenses to live and work there instead.

death train through oaxaca

Riding through Oaxaca, Mexico. Business Insider

death train migrant shelter chapel

A small chapel being used as a shelter in Ixtepec. Business Insider

We often speak of “the immigration problem” abstractly, avoiding the very human–and oftentimes, very devastating–processes that it entails. Frankfurter’s work highlights this human experience, capturing the humanity, bravery and troubling circumstances of those we tend to reduce as “aliens”. See more images in Michelle Frankfurter’s photo-book, Destino, which is available on Amazon, or on her website.

death train chasing it down

Chasing down a train, trying to avoid kidnapping by a cartel in Veracruz. Business Insider

death train migrant massacre

There is a shelter along the way known as “La 72 Refugio Para Personas Migrantes” in memoriam to the 72 migrants massacred by cartels.Business Insider

Erin Kelly
Erin Kelly is a freelance writer, artist and video editor that splits her time between the humid Midwest and the dusty corners of her mind.