MEXICO CITY — An old freight train known as La Bestia — the Beast — that was crowded with hundreds of Central American migrants trying to reach the United States derailed early Sunday in southern Mexico, killing at least three passengers and badly injuring more than a dozen others, Tabasco state officials said.
Most of the estimated 250 people on board were Hondurans, Mexican officials said. Eight of the train’s 12 cars careened off the tracks and plunged into ditches and the surrounding countryside in the southern state of Tabasco near its border with Veracruz state.
La Bestia is a notoriously dangerous but commonly used form of transportation for migrants who come into southern Mexico from Central America. They hop on board, often after being forced to pay large sums to local gangs, and travel north in hopes of being able to cross into the United States.
More and more migrants are from Honduras, Mexican officials say, because of that impoverished country’s lack of work and political violence.
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The journey for migrants is plagued by dangers beyond La Bestia. Every year, thousands disappear, are killed, forced into slave labor, raped or threatened by gangs that smuggle drugs and people. The gangs control nearly the entire route and often work in cahoots with local police or immigration agents.
The Tabasco state government said the Honduran migrants were heading north from the Guatemala border. Heavy rains had loosened the earth beneath the tracks and shifted the rails, officials said.
The train company and rescue workers were bringing in two cranes to help search for more victims among the eight derailed cars, officials said.
The locomotive and first car did not derail and were used to move victims to the nearest hospital, in the neighboring state of Veracruz. Tabasco state Civil Protection chief Cesar Burelo Burelo said the accident happened at 3 a.m. in a marshy area surrounded by lakes and forest that is out of cellphone range.
The Red Cross said dozens of soldiers, marines and emergency workers rushed to the area, which ambulances couldn’t reach. Officials were trying to establish air or water links to the scene.
Honduran diplomats also traveled to the area to help identify victims and make sure the injured were getting needed medical attention, that nation’s foreign ministry said.
Mario Bustillos Borge, the Red Cross chief in Tabasco, described the rescue as a complex situation that was making it difficult to get rapid confirmation of the exact number of dead and injured.
While the number of Mexicans heading to the United States has dropped dramatically, there has been a surge of Central Americans making the 1,000-mile northbound journey, fueled, in large part, by the rising violence brought to their homelands by the spread of Mexican drug cartels.
Other factors, experts say, are an easing in migration enforcement by Mexican authorities and a false perception that Mexican criminal gangs are not preying on migrants as much as they had been.
Central American migration remains small compared with the numbers of Mexicans still headed north, but steeply rising numbers speak starkly to the violence and poverty at home.
The number of Hondurans deported by the U.S. government increased to 32,000 last year from 24,000 in 2011. Authorities say it’s hard to estimate the numbers crossing north.
U.S. border agents caught 99,013 non-Mexican migrants, mostly from Central America, in the fiscal year that ended last Oct. 31, nearly double from the previous year and the highest number since 2006. The number of migrants actually making the trip is believed to be far higher.