The Desperate Journey

<B>Dan Rather</B> Reports On Agonizing Conditions Of Central American Migrants

Correspondent Dan Rather takes you to one the most popular tourist towns in Central America.

It's a place you probably have not heard of. This hot spot is in Mexico, but the tourists are not rich Americans. They're the poorest of the poor from Central America.

Instead of looking for sun and fun, like North American tourists, these people go to hide in the darkness of night, not on the beach but at a railroad station.

The place is Tapachula. Go there, as 60 Minutes did this summer, and you'll understand how and why an estimated one million desperate migrants from Central America - this year alone - will risk everything to try to illegally enter the United States. And if they don't make it the first time, they'll try again and again until they do.

For Central American migrants, the U.S. border is their goal line. They believe that if they can cross the line without getting caught, they will get a chance to escape poverty.

The railroad yard in Tapachula, near the Guatemala-Mexico border, is the starting line for many Central American migrants. It's nearly 2,000 miles from the U.S. border patrol checkpoint in California.

Men, women and children from countries to the south come every night, waiting to hop on a moving freight train going north. They hope to beat the odds of getting arrested, and somehow make it into the United States. 60 Minutes waited with them, not knowing when the unscheduled train might come.

Rather talked to some men who said they were scared of being caught or being robbed. Their stories are the same. They are poor, desperate and want to work.

But many don't survive at all. Generations of riders have called this train "La Bestia," or the beast. Many fall off after falling sleep and then are caught between the cars or under the wheels.

One sad refuge, just a few miles from the Tapachula train station, tries to help those who survived.

Roberto is 27. He injured one leg, and lost another. "The thieves threw me off the train," he says, speaking through a translator. "I wanted to go because I am a poor person. My family is poor. I have children and I wanted to help them, but I didn't make it."

Marvin, 15, told Rather he took the train to have a better life for himself and his family: "When I was trying to grab the rail on the side of the train, the air that the wheels generated pulled me under."

Young men like Marvin go north because they can't find work. An estimated 40,000 to 50,000 Central American children are homeless. Boys and girls living in the streets often must steal to survive. And most youngsters have something up their sleeve - shoemaker's glue - which they inhale to ease the pain of starvation and fear of being homeless.

But even a home is not so sweet. Francisco, 13, lived in the streets, but recently returned home to a one-room shack.

Many young women in Central America find that the only way to survive is to sell themselves. That's why Costa Rica is the new favorite destination of sex tourists.

The capital city of San Jose is replacing sex markets like Bangkok. 60 Minutes soundman Mark Barroso put on a hidden camera to meet some of the American tourists who aren't visiting for the scenery, but for the sex.

Most sex tourists come because prostitution is legal as long as the girl is 18 or older. They're welcome guests at the Holiday Inn – a favorite hotel for the hookers and their clients.

But an astonishing number of Americans come here not for legal prostitutes, but to have sex with minors. Police are cracking down on child prostitution, yet it took our hidden cameraman less than one minute to find a pimp, ask for an underage girl, and be told,"No problem."

An hour later, the pimp and his partners came back with Deborah, who said she's 15. The price? Eighteen dollars. Our cameraman declined.

Instead, we went to meet young girls at a shelter run by a private charity. The residents are teenagers who used to work as prostitutes. They were rescued from bars and brothels and taken to the shelter for counseling and kindness.

Maria, 15, has been at the shelter for less than a week. She was 11 when she left home. She said she usually made $6-7 dollars every day, which she spent on food.

Every night, new migrants show up at the Tapachula train station. Some watch alone, others in groups, waiting for the train that will take them on their risky journey towards the U.S. border.

When the train stopped, Rather spoke to a 28-year-old man who said this would be his sixth try.

Before the train left the station, some took time to practice their moves, hoping to avoid injury. Then, as suddenly as it arrived, the train started up again. It's not that hard for Rather to get on when the train starts to move out of the station. But it will be a long ride to Mexico City this way.

Rather jumped off the train soon afterward, and then did what everyone was taught to do at railroad crossings: stop, look and listen. But soon, a new group of Tapachula tourists will be riding the same train – desperate people who are willing to pay any price for this free ride, no matter how great the cost.