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Central Americans Dare Bandits, Corrupt Cops to Migrate North

Thousands of Central Americans leave their homes each year and embark on a perilous journey north through Mexico to end up as illegal emigrants in the United States and Canada. Dozens die on the way each year, most turn back, and some consider themselves lucky to make it. The Catholic Church is running a string of shelters for the intrepid travelers along the Guatamala-Mexico border where the migrants find food, a bed and time to steel themselves for the long trek. Nicola Fell visited the shelters and talked to the "kamikazes of poverty," as the migrants came to be known.

All along the route through Central America to the United States, there are hostels run by the Catholic Church that provide shelter and food for migrants traveling north. At a hostel in Guatemala, on the border with Mexico, there are around 50 immigrants resting from what has already been a long journey. They huddle around tables and in hushed, furtive whispers plan the next stage of their route.

One Guatemalan girl, who did not want to be named, says the hostel gives the migrants a chance to regroup.

"Over here they give us food and give us water. They give us rooms to sleep," she said. "They give us three days to stay. Those three days we've got to plan what route we're going to take. We ask whatever questions we want to the social worker."

She says the travel is dangerous because the migrants have to look out not only for bandits who want to rob them, but also for crooked policemen who demand bribes.

Last year, 70 people were killed by gangs, or Maras, as they are known. Their activities stretch all the way from El Salvador to the United States. All the migrants at this hostel said they were or expect to be robbed on this journey.

The savvy ones get their family to wire money to Western Union offices along the way but, this young woman is worried about more than losing her money. She says women run a great risk of being raped and getting pregnant. But she says that will not stop her from reaching the United States.

A local non-government organization, Fraya Matias, estimates that over one half of those trying to cross borders illegally are women and minors.

Traveling down a dirt track is a bright orange jeep. The man driving is also in a bright orange uniform, the mark of Grupo Beta, an organization the Mexican government set up in 1990 to provide some protection for the thousands of migrants who travel from Central America through Mexico to the United States and Canada. Like anyone in uniform, Group Beta officers are not readily trusted.

Grupo Beta officer, Frances Aceves assures a group of a dozen or so men who emerge from a roadside brush that they will not be arrested. He says, even without valid travel papers, they have rights and should call for help if they are threatened.

A young El Salvadoran says he and his friend have been on the road for seven days and their ultimate destination is Canada. He says, so far, the journey has not been easy.

"Feel very tired now …my feet are so hot… In the buses the people, they steal our money," he said. "Have nothing now."

He says he was robbed on the bus and by immigration police. But he says it is his "obligation" to get to North America and do what he can to improve the life of his family. There is no way back for him, he says.

Grupo Beta patrolmen hand out cans of tuna and some crackers to the men, and small bottles of water. They offer to take any of them back to Mexico's southern border, but there are no takers. Still, Grupo Beta estimates that only about one in five will make it across the border to the United States. It says the trip north is just too dangerous for most migrants.

For those who run out of luck and decide to go back, there are hostels at the Guatemalan border as well.

Juan Luis from El Salvador is one of them. His legs are two stumps below his waist. He draws himself up to a sitting position to tell his story.

Juan says he was trying to get to the United States, but had a train accident in which he lost both of his legs. He says he hadn't eaten anything for three days and was so weak he couldn't stay awake and fell off the train. He says he took a big gamble trying to make it to America and lost.

The dangers for the Central Americans to make the journey to the United States are enormous and the odds they will make it are long. But many are determined to succeed, mainly because the alternative is poverty, unemployment and hopelessness at home.