Most of us have gotten pretty numbed by statistics, especially around tragedy. When I tell people that over 600,000 Latin American coffee farmers lost their land and their livelihoods over the past five years as a result of the pricing crisis, a lot of coffee industry people say "how awful" but don't change their buying practices to counter the problem.
However, when statistics become real people the impact is much more profound. This is the story of what happens to some of those dispossessed coffee workers, along with so many other ordinary folks throughout Latin America, just trying to find a better life and support their families during increasingly difficult times. I have just returned from Tapachula, a small city in southern Chiapas, Mexico, that borders Guatemala. Tapachula's main claim to fame is that it is the most important cargo rail trunk line going to the north, and ultimately to the U.S. border. As a result, the rail line from Tapachula north is the main passageway for a flood of men, women and children heading towards the mythical El Norte, as the U.S. is known. Every evening around midnite, "La Bestia" (The Beast), also known as El Tren de Muerte (The Death Train), pulls slowly into the rail yard, slashing the peaceful night air with metallic screeches and bangs as it grabs additional cars for the ride north. Out of the surrounding bushes and embankments, about two hundred people scramble to jump on board, being pulled on top of some cars, holding on to the sides of others, or wedging in between cars. On the way north, many will fall asleep during the long hauls between stations, some will fall off. Some will lose their grip on the jolting ride and slip off into the night. Others will be robbed or raped by armed gangs and thrown off. Many of these people will be sucked under the train as they fall, La Bestia crushing arms, legs, chests. The survivors are sent back to Tapachula, where they are cared for by a most remarkable woman, Dona Olga, in the small sanctuary called Alberge de Buen Pastor Jesus (Sanctuary of Good Shepard Jesus).
I came here with Marta, a young Ecuadoran woman working with Polus Center, an organization we have teamed up with to provide services and hope to disabled people in Nicaragua and Ethiopia. We wanted to investigate the Death Train and see what, if anything, we could do to assist Dona Olga in caring for the victims. We had talked to Dona Olga about repatriating some of the survivors to their own countries, and providing some form of economic assistance and job training, as well. But, of course, these things can't be done cookie-cutter style. A plan needs to be made that takes into account the real circumstances, resources and possibilities of the survivors, the shelter, as well as our ability to assist economically.
Entering the small, cramped building, I was immediately assaulted by the swirl of sweat, infection and antiseptic. The four small rooms are jammed with wheelchairs, crutches and old medical equipment. Twenty-six men and women currently live at the Alberge. They come from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and elsewhere. They have two things in common; they were trying to go north to send money back to their families, and they had all lost arms, legs or both to the Death Train. Some were waiting for prosthetic limbs, some were learning how to walk on them, and others just seemed to stare blankly ahead. Winston worked on a coffee farm in Honduras, but lost his job when the price paid for coffee sank below the cost of growing it two years ago. He sits in a wheelchair, missing an arm and a leg, and tells me that his dream is to go back, build a house and grow coffee again. Maria lost both legs above the knees, and waits for prosthetic legs. She wants to go back to El Salvador and start a dress making business to support her three kids that now have to live with her mother. Kevin, a small man with a big smile from Guatemala, wants to be a shoe maker. Donald wants to stay at the Shelter and help others to make the transition to normalization. He is motivated by altruism and by fear of returning home to Honduras as a burden to his family-the one he was supposed to support. The stories keep coming. We visit the hospital, where three other victims wait for Dona Olga to bring the drugs they need. They must pay for their own drugs, even for the transfusion blood. These are some of the "improvements" brought about by Structural Adjustment and Privatization.
Dona Olga spends much of each day rounding up donations, buying medicine and visiting the victims. She is an immensely loving presence, and must seem like a true angel when these guys wake up after their amputation and see her soft, caring face. One of the men, Benito, is only sixteen. He looks around the hospital room in total bewilderment. Two weeks ago, he was heading north to help his family. Now he is in a hospital bed he can't pay for, in a country he is not allowed to be in, and is missing his left arm and right leg. I can't even fathom the despair. Marta leaves the room in tears. That night we go to the Death Train. It is pitch black and pouring rain. We are there with Francisco, the head of BETA, the state migrant's protection group. Francisco goes to the train every night to give food packages and information to the migrants. He is also there to keep an eye on the state police, who are dressed in black, carry machine guns and often extort money from the migrants. We were told that it is very dangerous to go to the train without an escort. But it is not the migrants who are the problem, they are friendly and open. Many are coffee farmers. They willingly share their stories with us. The problems come from the police and from the organized gangs who roam the yards and terrorize the migrants. The largest and most dangerous is Mara Salvatrucha, made up of ex-L.A. gang members deported back to Mexico. One of the migrants told me that he would rather keep ten pesos and not eat, so that he could have extortion money when assaulted. If he had no money to give, he said quietly, the Mara would throw him off the train. I approach a group of men hanging between two cars. Where are you guys from? Honduras and Guatemala. What did you do there? Factory worker, coffee worker, just left school. Hang on tight and don't let the other guys fall asleep. Don't fall off the train. We pull together a plan to share with Dona Olga. We suggest that instead of a big program chasing hundreds of thousands of dollars, we create a small, very focused plan to identify the needs and desires of each person at the Alberge, and sculpt a program for each over time. We commit to repatriating Maria and setting her up in her dress making business (and we meet with the El Salvadoran consulate to make it happen). In the bargain, the consulate finds a job as a translator for Nelson, an English speaking resident of the shelter. We agree to help Donald gain the administrative and computer skills needed and provide the salary for him to become the administrator of the Alberge. This is a good beginning, and Dona Olga readily agrees. As we evolve the program, I intend to solicit contributions from Starbucks, Green Mountain and some of the other big coffee companies that made record profits during the crisis. Hopefully, these companies will recognize that it was our collective behavior as an industry that drove Winston, Donald and so many people to risk their futures on the Death Train, and be willing to support our small efforts to make amends.