ECATEPEC, MEXICO — Jose Luis Gutierrez is the mayor of the biggest city in Mexico you've never heard of, a sprawling suburb of Mexico City built by people on the move.
And the charismatic Gutierrez has done something almost as unheard of: He has declared this city of as many as 3 million people a "sanctuary" for the illegal immigrants from Central America who pass through here each day.
He has ordered his police officers and city officials not to arrest, extort or otherwise harass the migrants. He's also ordered them not to cooperate with Mexican immigration agents.
"Let them go and guard the borders," he said. "For Ecatepec, migration is not a criminal act. It's a universal right: the right to seek work and the right to travel freely from one place to another."
Ecatepec is the place where Hondurans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans and others begin the long, final stage of their journey across Mexico, northward to the U.S. border aboard a freight train known as "the beast."
Thousands of undocumented immigrants pass through here every year, but you won't hear many Ecatepec residents call them "illegal."
"A lot of people help them," said Guadalupe Ambriz, a 33-year-old resident of Xalostoc, an impoverished Ecatepec neighborhood divided by the rail line. Ambriz, like many residents along the tracks, lives in an old boxcar that's been converted into a home.
"They might let them take a bath, or give them some food, or some old clothes," Ambriz said.
Given Ecatepec's history, the mayor's decision was not a controversial one. This city is made up of migrants, people who resettled here from other impoverished corners of Mexico, including the nearby states of Oaxaca, Hidalgo and Puebla.
And every year Ecatepec sends many of its sons and daughters northward. There are large communities of Ecatepec natives in California, Texas and other U.S. states.
"For us, the bravest people of Ecatepec are the ones who go take the risk of going to the north, with all the abuse and the hatred that goes on there," Gutierrez said. "Those people are heroes for us."
Gutierrez, 42, is a longtime activist with the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, which won the 2006 municipal elections here.
Immigration is a deeply personal issue for him, Gutierrez said. One of his cousins has lived in the Los Angeles area, "without papers," for 10 years.
"We were raised together by our grandmother," Gutierrez said. Because his cousin is in the U.S. illegally, he hasn't been able to return to Mexico and the two men haven't seen each other in a decade. "All those people who have gone to the north are our blood," the mayor said.
Central American immigrants have been passing through Ecatepec for more than a decade. Their journey is fraught with peril. Untold numbers of immigrants have died along the way, or suffered crippling injuries in falls from the train. All along the route, from the Guatemalan border to the Rio Grande, police and immigration officials routinely seek bribes, or simply rob migrants.
"For years, our police protected the extortionists," Gutierrez said of Ecatepec's officers. "The immigrants didn't complain, but the residents did. It just added to a climate of excessive violence in a neighborhood that was already dangerous."
Recent months have brought changes to the migrant trail. The last working rail line in Mexico's southern border states shut down in July, leading many migrants to walk for days past immigration checkpoints, or to hire smugglers to get them across Mexico.
The trains through central and northern Mexico to the U.S. border are still running, but the rail lines that go through Ecatepec are mostly quiet. The people who live along the tracks say they see only a few illegal migrants pass each day.
It is more difficult than ever to get across the U.S. border, a fact well known by many Ecatepec residents.
"It's a hard journey," said Armando Pena, a 40-year-old bicycle-taxi operator in the Xalostoc neighborhood. Last year, he paid a smuggler the equivalent of $1,000 to get him to Los Angeles. "But if you want to get ahead, it's the only way."
Pena said the smuggler got him across the border at San Ysidro in a box attached to the underside of a car. "I thought I was going to suffocate," he said.
Remembering his own hardships, he helps the passing migrants any way he can, he said.
He spent three months in California, selling ice cream on the street, then got homesick and came home, only to discover that his wife was having an affair. With one of his friends.
One day soon he might join the flow of migrants who pass through Ecatepec and return to the U.S., he said.
Only this time he expects to have to pay the smuggler $2,000, or more.
"I should have stayed in California," he said.