Fleeing Mitch's Aftermath

If poverty alone compelled most people to emigrate, Tecun Uman, Guatemala, would be a ghost town. But residents of this dusty crossroad on the Mexican border aren't on the run, they're being overrun by thousands of migrants from neighboring countries fleeing even worse conditions elsewhere.

The town has become a way station for thousands of emigrants trying to escape the devastation and despair brought by Hurricane Mitch last fall, CBS News Correspondent Bill Whitaker reports. They have been wiped out by the monster storm and now their goal is to reach the United States, where there's at least the hope of being able to rebuild their lives.

"I'm Honduran," says one person in Tecun Uman. "The hurricane wiped us out. It took our houses. It took everything."

The hurricane left Maria Rivera homeless and jobless in El Salvador. Two weeks ago Rivera, her aunt, and two small children joined the trek north. "I'm looking for new opportunities in the U.S., a better life for my kids," she says.

Father Ademar Barilli runs a shelter for emigrants in Tecun Uman. More than 2,000 people passed through his shelter in the first two months of this year- three times more than last year.

It's a dangerous journey. Vicious bandits prey on migrants-raping, robbing even killing them. It's rare to find someone who has not been assaulted.

A machete wielding gang attacked Herman Rodriguez and his brother. "He went after me and cut me with the machete, all the while biting me and hitting me," Rodriguez says. He almost lost his finger and doesn't know where his brother is.

They're risking their lives to reach a northbound freight train. As it passes, they swarm from hiding places, run to jump on, and claim a precarious perch. Human cargo piled on anyway they can.

It's hot and dangerous. Their goal is to ride the train north for 15 days and 1,300 miles, the length of Mexico. Their destination is the border and gateway to the U.S. with its jobs and its hope.

There's a sense of elation. You can see it on their faces. But that doesn't last. At each stop, they run from Mexican immigration agents into the woods, where the gangs are waiting. If the gangs or police don't get them, the train may. An 18-year-old man fell beneath the wheels of one moving train to his death. It happens too often to count, one Mexican official says.

Back at the shelter, Maria Rivera says she can't survive at home, but fears she and her family won't survive the journey either, "I'm afraid I'll get separated from my kids, maybe we won't make it."

That's a calculation desperate Central Americans are making every day. With recovery from the hurricane expected to take years, it's likely more and more of them will decide this hellish trip is worth the risk.

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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