A BRUSH WITH THE BEAST

One woman's remarkable story of survival in her search for safety

In Coatzacoalcos, southern Mexico, immigration controls are installed at points along the train tracks, where the train known as La Bestia - the Beast - passes more slowly to prevent migrants from boarding it. © Léo Coulongeat/Hans Lucas

Meet Lurvy Elisa Ramírez.

She is a mother-of-four, a small business owner and now an amputee.

For months Lurvy, 44, has been trying to find a place of safety after fleeing her home in Honduras, where gangs tried to extort money from her.

Separated from her children and travelling alone, she planned to apply for asylum in Mexico in the hope of one day reaching the United States.

But as months passed without her application progressing, Lurvy became increasingly desperate.

In December 2019, she decided to take her chance on a network of Mexican freight trains collectively known as La Bestia – The Beast – as a train passed through the Mexican city of Coatzacoalcos.

"We wanted to take the train to Tierra Blanca," she recalls. "We waited until we heard it approaching. Then everyone began to run.

"The migra (immigration agents) were waiting at the spot where the train slows down, so we had to try and board it it later, when it starts to accelerate again. We were stumbling because we were afraid that we would be caught by them.

"I tried to grab the side of the train but I couldn't reach it. The next thing I remember I was lying on the ground with everyone crowded around me.

"I didn't want to look at my legs but the pain was excruciating.”

Lurvy Elisa Ramírez, a 44-year-old woman from Honduras, was hit by a train when she was fleeing from the National Guard in Coatzacoalcos, Mexico.

Lurvy Elisa Ramírez, a 44-year-old woman from Honduras, was hit by a train when she was fleeing from the National Guard in Coatzacoalcos, Mexico.

Lurvy Elisa Ramírez, a 44-year-old woman from Honduras, was hit by a train when she was fleeing from the National Guard in Coatzacoalcos, Mexico.

La Bestia, known as The Beast, is a network of freight trains that transport supplies along the railways of Mexico. But it is also used as a means of transportation for migrants, mainly Salvadorans, Hondurans and Guatemalans, who hope to reach the United States.

La Bestia, known as The Beast, is a network of freight trains that transport supplies along the railways of Mexico. But it is also used as a means of transportation for migrants, mainly Salvadorans, Hondurans and Guatemalans, who hope to reach the United States.

La Bestia, known as The Beast, is a network of freight trains that transport supplies along the railways of Mexico. But it is also used as a means of transportation for migrants, mainly Salvadorans, Hondurans and Guatemalans, who hope to reach the United States.

Wrong side of the tracks

Train tracks in Coatzacoalcos, southern Mexico, where freight trains collectively known as The Beast pass through.
Lurvy’s injuries were so severe that both her legs had to be amputated.

Lurvy’s injuries were so severe that both her legs had to be amputated.

Lurvy’s injuries were so severe that both her legs had to be amputated.

When Lurvy came to, she was surrounded by members of her group and local residents who were trying to stem the bleeding.

She said the police did not come to her aid.

"They made me a tourniquet, called an ambulance and brought me to the hospital. I was taken straight to the operating theatre and when I woke up, I didn't have my legs."
Lurvy Elisa Ramírez

“I have been in Coatzacoalcos for three months. I thank God because I'm alive and I must keep going for my children's sake."

Lurvy’s injuries were so severe that both her legs had to be amputated.

She has been receiving medical and mental healthcare from MSF teams, both in hospital and at Casa Catalina, a refuge for vulnerable groups in Coatzacoalcos where she is being rehabilitated.

As well as caring for residents at Casa Catalina, our staff are also working to protect them from COVID-19, introducing prevention protocols in collaboration with local health authorities.

No choice but to flee

A migrant woman with her feverish daughter in her arms runs to the MSF mobile clinic in Coatzacoalcos.

Lurvy told MSF teams she had no choice but to flee her home province of La Esperanza in Honduras.

“The situation there is very dangerous," she said.

"Crime is everywhere and there are no jobs. Businesses cannot survive because you have to pay a heavy ‘war tax’ (extortion paid to gangs) and if you do not pay them, they kill you.

"I had a small shop selling food that did not pay much and when they asked me for money I couldn't pay. I had to send my four children to another province. Their father went with them because I had to flee."

Lurvy said it was difficult to leave her home behind and to set out on this journey, alone and as a woman.

"I knew it would be hard because of the things people tell you, about the attacks and assaults, and the chance you might be locked up or deported," she said.

But like many migrants, Lurvy felt she had no other choice.

MSF works in several shelters all along the migrant route in Mexico.

MSF works in several shelters all along the migration route in Mexico.

MSF works in several shelters all along the migration route in Mexico.

This video is based on the true story of Pedro (name changed to protect anonymity), a Honduran man who fled gang violence and received care from an MSF team at a shelter in Tenosique, Mexico.

This video is based on the true story of Pedro (name changed to protect anonymity), a Honduran man who fled gang violence and received care from an MSF team at a shelter in Tenosique, Mexico.

Immigration controls are deliberately conducted mere metres away from where MSF teams carry out consultations and migrants try to board the train. This means that, in fear of being detained, fewer people seek medical care.

Immigration controls are deliberately conducted mere metres away from where MSF teams carry out consultations and migrants try to board the train. This means that, in fear of being detained, fewer people seek medical care.

Immigration controls are deliberately conducted mere metres away from where MSF teams carry out consultations and migrants try to board the train. This means that, in fear of being detained, fewer people seek medical care.

An MSF team assists dozens of people who have arrived in Coatzacoalcos, providing medical and psychological care, and distributing water and personal hygiene kits.

An MSF team assists dozens of people who have arrived in Coatzacoalcos, providing medical and psychological care, and distributing water and personal hygiene kits.

An MSF team assists dozens of people who have arrived in Coatzacoalcos, providing medical and psychological care, and distributing water and personal hygiene kits.

Many migrants have been killed or horrifically injured while trying to board The Beast.

The public system for migration in Mexico has collapsed under the demand for humanitarian visas, protection and shelter, and following a change in Mexican immigration policy, it has become more difficult for foreigners to obtain the necessary permission to cross the country and reach the US without having to hide from the police and immigration officials.

As soon as migrants reach Mexico, they are persecuted by both criminal gangs and the authorities, who have increased their checkpoints and raids on migrant groups.

When Lurvy arrived in Chiapas, southern Mexico, she started the asylum application process with the COMAR, the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance.

"I went every Tuesday but two months went by without any progress," she said. "I was afraid to stay in Chiapas because I was alone and the gangs that tyrannise people from Central America are in that area.

"I was tormented and harassed by a man. I didn't know what his intentions were. I was also told that gangs operate there and I was afraid they might find me. 

"I panicked and decided to take the train north."

Into the path of danger

Many migrants have been killed or horrifically injured while trying to board The Beast.

The persecution and criminalisation of migrants makes them even more vulnerable by restricting legitimate channels and forcing them to choose dangerous routes to evade immigration controls.

It’s even stopped some accessing free healthcare offered by MSF along the migration route in Mexico.

"We have noticed that fewer people than usual are passing through Coatzacoalcos, a transit route for regular migrants, due to the immigration controls," said MSF's head of medical activities, Gemma Pomares.

"These are a few metres away from where our teams provide medical consultations and where migrants can usually get on the train.

"For fear of being arrested, fewer patients are accessing our clinic, even if they are in need of medical care
Gemma Pomares, MSF's head of medical activities

Despite her horrifying injuries, Lurvy was denied assistance by the Mexican authorities.

MSF general coordinator Sergio Martín said this shows the dehumanisation at the heart of Mexico's immigration containment policies.

"The actions of the Mexican authorities are endangering migrants’ lives," he said.

A mobile clinic - comprising a doctor, a nurse, a psychologist and a social worker - assist people along the railroad.

A mobile clinic - comprising a doctor, a nurse, a psychologist and a social worker - assist people along the railroad.

A mobile clinic - comprising a doctor, a nurse, a psychologist and a social worker - assist people along the railroad.

Travelling across Mexico exposes migrants to violence, while the long days spent outdoors in harsh conditions lead to dehydration, foot lesions and muscle pain, as well as a host of other health issues.

Travelling across Mexico exposes migrants to violence, while the long days spent outdoors in harsh conditions lead to dehydration, foot lesions and muscle pain, as well as a host of other health issues.

Travelling across Mexico exposes migrants to violence, while the long days spent outdoors in harsh conditions lead to dehydration, foot lesions and muscle pain, as well as a host of other health issues.

A message of hope

Lurvy Elisa Ramírez has been treated by MSF teams in Coatzacoalcos after losing both her legs while trying to board The Beast in her search for safety.
"I want to walk again and inspire others who have survived what I went through because I know that many people have had the misfortune of falling from the train," says Lurvy Elisa Ramírez.

"I want to walk again and inspire others who have survived what I went through because I know that many people have had the misfortune of falling from the train," says Lurvy Elisa Ramírez.

"I want to walk again and inspire others who have survived what I went through because I know that many people have had the misfortune of falling from the train," says Lurvy Elisa Ramírez.

Lurvy's wounds are healing and after several sessions with an MSF psychologist, she is feeling more optimistic about her future.

"I feel calmer," she said. "I know that I no longer have my legs but I'll have my prosthetics.

"I'll restart the processing of my papers and I hope they will grant me refuge because I will be killed if I return to Honduras."

Despite the physical and emotional pain Lurvy has endured, she remains hopeful of finding a better life for her family.

"I want to walk again and inspire others who have survived what I went through because I know that many people have had the misfortune of falling from the train," she said.

"I also hope to bring my children here because they are in danger in Honduras and I want them to have a future, an education.

"They are the reason I keep going and keep fighting."

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