CHONTALPA, México (AP) — Hundreds of Central Americans riding atop a cargo train in hopes of getting to the U.S. were being threatened and extorted by armed men before the train derailed and killed at least six, survivors told The Associated Press on Monday.
Many who had sneaked onto the train known as "The Beast" were thrown loose when eight of its 12 cars derailed as it hauled tons of metal junk through a remote, swampy stretch of southern Mexico, witnesses said. At least some of the dead were trapped because they had tied themselves on to avoid slipping as they rode between cars.
Witness accounts offered a close-up look at the horrifying conditions faced by the tens of thousands of Central Americans who cross Mexico in increasing numbers in hopes of finding work in the U.S., even as Mexican migration slows. Gangs of armed men prowl the train line, robbing, kidnapping, extorting and raping those trying to cross Mexico.
Hundreds squeeze together atop the train's cars. Others ride between cars for lack of space, or to obtain shelter from wind and rain.
"Those are the ones who died," Jose Hector Alfonso Pacheco, a 48-year-old Honduran, said in a shelter where Mexican authorities housed dozens of the estimated 250 migrants who were riding on the train.
Workers were still removing tons of wrecked railcars and junk with heavy equipment Monday but had found no additional victims by late in the day. At least five migrants suffered grave injuries, and dozens had less serious injuries.
Mexican authorities said the accident victims can stay in Mexico legally for a year and apply for citizenship if they want.
The dead migrants were between 19 and 58 years old. In an indication of why the toll wasn't higher, authorities said the train was moving only at about 2 miles an hour when it derailed.
Survivors described themselves as having been kidnapped by armed men who were taking them to meet with their chief in the nearby city of Coatzacoalcos, presumably to arrange payments that would allow them to get across Mexico and into the U.S.
Agustin Sorto Ayala, a 22-year-old Honduran, said he saw seven men get on the last car near the town of Chontalpa and move from car to car with flashlights and pistols, telling the migrants that "we had to pay for a 'guide,' we had to pay 'rent,' and if we didn't they wouldn't let us get off the train."
"They had us kidnapped, and when the train derailed, that's how we got loose," he said.
Mexican officials said they were investigating the cause of the crash. State authorities pointed to heavy rains softening the ground beneath the tracks as well as the possible pilfering of metal spikes and rail connectors from the tracks.
Duglas Javier Valdes Venegas, a 35-year-old migrant from Honduras, was trapped under a train car for five hours along with a cousin, who died at a hospital.
Valdes Venegas said from a hospital bed where he was being treated for broken bones that he was singing to his cousin so they wouldn't fall asleep when the accident happened.
"When we didn't have any songs left, the accident happened," Valdes Venegas said.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said the accident was a reminder of the dire conditions faced by migrants on the train.
Honduran and Guatemalan diplomats traveled to the area to help identify victims and make sure the injured were getting needed medical attention, the nations' foreign officials said.
Honduran President Porfirio Lobo offered his condolences to the families of Hondurans who died in the accident through his Twitter account.
"I'm sorry about what happened in Mexico," Lobo wrote. "Several Hondurans died in that train derailment."