CHONTALA, Mexico – A notorious cargo train known as "the Beast" and carrying at least 250 Central American hitchhiking migrants derailed in a remote region of southern Mexico on Sunday, killing at least five people and injuring 18, authorities said.
The train company and rescue workers were bringing in two cranes to begin lifting the eight derailed cars overnight, and officials said it was possible they might find more victims under the wreckage.
Late Sunday, federal authorities had lowered the death toll to three, but said minutes later that two more had died, and put the toll back at the five announced earlier by Tabasco state officials. It said 18 others were injured, two of them near death.
Thousands of migrants ride the roofs of the train cars on their way north each year, braving brutal conditions for a chance at crossing into the United States.
The Tabasco state government said at least 250 Honduran migrants were on the train heading north from the Guatemala border. Heavy rains had loosened the earth beneath the tracks and shifted the rails, officials said. Mexico's transportation ministry said the train traveled at 6 miles per hour, which meets standards. In a news statement, the government said the tracks were rebuilt in 2009 and recently received an inspection.
Dozens of migrants who survived uninjured were sent to a local shelter in the town of Chontalpa.
Jose Hector Alfonso Pacheco, of Honduras, said he was riding between two train cars loaded with scrap metal. He said fellow migrants who squeezed in between the ladder and the car were the ones who were killed or injured.
"Many of my Honduran brothers fastened themselves to the train. They couldn't let go. They are the ones who lost their lives," Alfonso said.
Honduran President Porfirio Lobo set up a call center for families to learn information about their loved ones.
The head of civil protection for Mexico's Interior Department, Luis Felipe Puente, released a list of 17 Hondurans ranging in ages from 19 to 54 who were taken to two regional hospitals. Six of them were in serious condition, according to the list he published on his official Twitter account. Puente said another Guatemalan was also wounded and the Central American nation's foreign ministry said two were injured.
The locomotive and first car did not derail and were used to move victims to the nearest hospital, in the neighboring state of Veracruz. The federal government said the accident happened at 1 a.m. in a ranch of Huimanguillo, a marshy area surrounded by lakes and forest that is out of cellphone range.
The Red Cross said dozens of soldiers, marines and civilian emergency workers rushed to the area, which ambulances couldn't reach. Officials were trying to establish air or water links to the scene.
Honduran and Guatemalan diplomats traveled to the area to help identify victims and make sure the injured were getting needed medical attention, the nations' foreign officials 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.
"There are some very high estimates, and others that are more conservative," he told a local radio station, without providing details.
While the number of Mexicans heading to the U.S. 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 to 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 between 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 Oct. 31, nearly double the same period a year earlier and the highest since 2006. The number of migrants actually making the trip is believed to be far higher.