ARRIAGA, Mexico (AP) — U.S.-bound Central Americans are fleeing urban areas and hiking into the woods and low jungle for fear of being detained by Mexican officials rounding up migrants in southern Mexico.
Until recently, the streets of Arriaga bustled with migrants who would stay at cheap flophouses and shelters and hop aboard the northbound freight trains at will. The streets of the city of about 40,000 people now look empty.
Federal official Humberto Mayans said Tuesday that immigration officials have pulled 6,000 migrants off the trains they call "The Beast" but offered no details on the roundups.
"We won't allow in any way for them to board the trains," Mayans told Radio Formula. He was recently appointed to head the federal government's southern border improvement plans.
Mexico's Interior Department said in a statement later Tuesday that the migrants were from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and had been returned to their countries.
Mexican officials say the raids seek to ensure migrants' safety, arguing that they often fall or are pushed off the train by criminal gangs that kidnap, rape, kill and extort money.
But that claim was met with jeers by Central Americans camping out Tuesday in the jungle near Arriaga.
"That's a lie. It doesn't make us safer," said Manuel Villalta, 31, a migrant from Huasapa, El Salvador, looking to return to the meatpacking plants in the U.S. where he once worked. "Look how we are in the woods, drinking water that can be infected."
Like the other migrants at the jungle camp, he says he will hop the moving train when it slows at a curve just down the tracks, a much more dangerous practice than hopping the train when it stops in town.
"They won't stop us. If they detain 100, another 300, 400 will come," Villalta said.
Guatemalan migrant Guillermo Sismit, 38, who was deported from Miami and is trying to return to his two children in the U.S., was among about a dozen other migrants camped out near the tracks around two miles outside of Arriaga, sleeping on pieces of cardboard and drinking water from a nearby stream.
"Before we could stay in the town, but now we're exposed to everything in the woods, the animals, the police, the thieves, the narcos," Sismit said.
Masked police and Mexican immigration agents started raids in Arriaga about two weeks ago, residents said, sometimes even sweeping up Mexicans carrying backpacks or with tattoos, often a sign of gang affiliation.
Luis Fernando Martinez, a 20-year-old unemployed Arriaga resident who almost got swept up in the raids, said he has seen masked federal police officers and at least seven immigration vehicles during the roundups.
"They come looking for anyone who has a tattoo," he said, pointing to a small tattoo on his hip that almost got him picked up.