TULTITLAN, Mexico – Considered felons by the government, these migrants fear detention, rape and robbery. Police and soldiers hunt them down at railroads, bus stations and fleabag hotels. Sometimes they are deported; more often officers simply take their money.
While migrants in the United States have held huge demonstrations in recent weeks, the hundreds of thousands of undocumented Central Americans in Mexico suffer mostly in silence.
And though Mexico demands humane treatment for its citizens who migrate to the U.S., regardless of their legal status, Mexico provides few protections for migrants on its own soil. The issue simply isn't on the country's political agenda, perhaps because migrants make up only 0.5 percent of the population, or about 500,000 people — compared with 12 percent in the United States.
The level of brutality Central American migrants face in Mexico was apparent Monday, when police conducting a raid for undocumented migrants near a rail yard outside Mexico City shot to death a local man, apparently because his dark skin and work clothes made officers think he was a migrant.
Virginia Sanchez, who lives near the railroad tracks that carry Central Americans north to the U.S. border, said such shootings in Tultitlan are common.
"At night, you hear the gunshots, and it's the judiciales (state police) chasing the migrants," she said. "It's not fair to kill these people. It's not fair in the United States and it's not fair here."
Undocumented Central American migrants complain much more about how they are treated by Mexican officials than about authorities on the U.S. side of the border, where migrants may resent being caught but often praise the professionalism of the agents scouring the desert for their trail.
"If you're carrying any money, they take it from you — federal, state, local police, all of them," said Carlos Lopez, a 28-year-old farmhand from Guatemala crouching in a field near the tracks in Tultitlan, waiting to climb onto a northbound freight train.
Lopez said he had been shaken down repeatedly in 15 days of traveling through Mexico.
"The soldiers were there as soon as we crossed the river," he said. "They said, 'You can't cross ... unless you leave something for us."'
Jose Ramos, 18, of El Salvador, said the extortion occurs at every stop in Mexico, until migrants are left penniless and begging for food.
"If you're on a bus, they pull you off and search your pockets and if you have any money, they keep it and say, 'Get out of here,"' Ramos said.
Maria Elena Gonzalez, who lives near the tracks, said female migrants often complain about abusive police.
"They force them to strip, supposedly to search them, but the purpose is to sexually abuse them," she said.
Others said they had seen migrants beaten to death by police, their bodies left near the railway tracks to make it look as if they had fallen from a train.
The Mexican government acknowledges that many federal, state and local officials are on the take from the people-smugglers who move hundreds of thousands of Central Americans north, and that migrants are particularly vulnerable to abuse by corrupt police.
The National Human Rights Commission, a government-funded agency, documented the abuses south of the U.S. border in a December report.
"One of the saddest national failings on immigration issues is the contradiction in demanding that the North respect migrants' rights, which we are not capable of guaranteeing in the South," commission president Jose Luis Soberanes said.
In the United States, mostly Mexican immigrants have staged rallies pressuring Congress to grant amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants rather than making them felons and deputizing police to deport them. The Mexican government has spoken out in support of the immigrants' cause.
While Interior Secretary Carlos Abascal said Monday that "Mexico is a country with a clear, defined and generous policy toward migrants," the nation of 105 million has legalized only 15,000 immigrants in the past five years, and many undocumented migrants who are detained are deported.
Although Mexico objects to U.S. authorities detaining Mexican immigrants, police and soldiers usually cause the most trouble for migrants in Mexico, even though they aren't technically authorized to enforce immigration laws.
And while Mexicans denounce the criminalization of their citizens living without papers in the United States, Mexican law classifies undocumented immigration as a felony punishable by up to two years in prison, although deportation is more common.
The number of undocumented migrants detained in Mexico almost doubled from 138,061 in 2002 to 240,269 last year. Forty-two percent were Guatemalan, 33 percent Honduran and most of the rest Salvadoran.
Like the United States, Mexico is becoming reliant on immigrant labor. Last year, then-director of Mexico's immigration agency, Magdalena Carral, said an increasing number of Central Americans were staying in Mexico, rather than just passing through on their way to the U.S.
She said sectors of the Mexican economy facing labor shortages often use undocumented workers because the legal process for work visas is inefficient.