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Latino Community Aches for Migrants Who Died in Boxcar

Neighbors gather for memorial service to pay respects for 11 immigrants. They are fearful that others may suffer the same fate.

October 17, 2002|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

DENISON, Iowa -- The freight trains clank through the flat fields of northwest Iowa several times a day, rattling past one-block farm towns, towing boxcars, tanker cars and grain cars sealed tight against the prairie winds.

Nadia Castanela heard them screech past as usual on Wednesday. And she shuddered.

"I think of the people who came that way," she said. "I think of the others who might still come."

She did not need to elaborate.

Dozens of her neighbors joined her at a memorial service in a drizzly dusk to pray for the souls of 11 unidentified adults who perished in a stifling grain hopper, apparently while attempting to sneak into the United States.

Their bodies -- barely more than huddled skeletons -- were discovered here earlier this week when the Union Pacific hopper that entombed them was opened for a routine cleaning after four months in storage in Oklahoma.

After a full day of autopsies in Des Moines, the state medical examiner determined that seven of the dead were men and four were women. The official cause of death: overheating and dehydration. Beyond that, there are few facts. Only horrible conjecture.

"Such a very slow, very sad, very awful death," said Castanela, 27. She pulled her young son close.

"I came to ask God that they have peace."

Authorities have not yet determined where the immigrants came from, or even when they died. Yet state and local officials have been fielding calls from anxious relatives wondering if the loved ones they have not heard from in months could be among the corpses.

Thousands of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America hide themselves in freight trains each year in a dangerous gamble to push north.

Most often, they are guided into cars by a smuggler, or coyote, who may charge several hundred or even several thousand dollars for his services. Few bring along food or water.

"Usually the smuggler knows where the train is going and gets someone there to meet it and unlock the car," said Julio Salinas, a supervisor with the Border Patrol's office in McAllen, Texas. "But, as in this case, it doesn't always happen."

Last June, Border Patrol agents found 26 illegal immigrants locked in unbearable heat inside two grain cars that had been pushed to the side of the rails instead of coupled to the freight train.

The migrants -- including two pregnant women -- had been banging on the sides of the car, frantic to draw rescuers.

Through August, the Border Patrol had apprehended nearly 14,000 illegal stowaways on freight trains. That's down from nearly 47,000 arrests five years ago. Still, train jumping remains "a pretty common" approach for migrants who make it across the Rio Grande but want to move deeper into the U.S., Salinas said.

In one of the most horrific incidents, agents in 1987 discovered 18 Mexicans dead in a boxcar that had been pushed to the side in Sierra Blanca, Texas. The lone survivor said the group had been locked in the car in El Paso.

The hopper car that ended up at the grain elevator here left Matamoros, Mexico, four months ago. Such trains go through four checkpoints after crossing into the U.S. No one yet knows whether the migrants evaded those checks when they climbed into the hopper.

No one knows, either, where they hoped to go.

But their deaths have deeply moved the Latino community here in this industrious town of 7,300.

Like many rural communities across the Midwest, Denison has become an increasingly popular draw for legal immigrants seeking work in the slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants.

The Latino population in the Midwest has nearly doubled in the past 10 years. Here in Denison, the boom has been remarkable: Eight years ago, the town had just a handful of minorities. Now, Latino immigrants make up nearly 20% of the population.

And while most of them have taken far less perilous paths to the United States, they can identify with the desperation -- for jobs, for education, for distant family -- that might have driven 11 men and women to seal themselves in a grain hopper heading north.

A choir sang. A dozen candles flickered in an alcove by the altar.

Off in the corner, 17-year-old Aaron Espino prayed. "When I see the trains now," he said, "I think of them. I think there could be people in there. There could be people in there dying."


Times researcher Lynn Marshall contributed to this report.

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