TULTITLAN, MEXICO — Gathered below an overpass on Independence Avenue, dressed in the multiple layers typical of homeless travelers, the migrants watched for the next northbound freight train through Tultitlan.
Many of them, mostly young men and boys, prepared to hop aboard, hobo-style, on an ever-more-precarious trip that might get them as far as the United States.
But fewer migrants are achieving that goal. Central Americans who for years have passed through Mexico en route to the U.S. are increasingly cutting their trips short as they run out of cash or become discouraged by fewer opportunities farther away from home.
The lingering presence of the migrants in this town, about an hour's drive outside Mexico City, is tearing the small community apart, with some residents providing migrants with food, clothes and aid and others complaining of their alleged crimes, plus a new local government maneuvering to get rid of them.
The treatment of immigrants has become a divisive and embarrassing issue for Mexico. A country that has historically sent millions of its own people to the U.S. and elsewhere in search of work, Mexico has proved itself less than hospitable to Central Americans following the same calling.
Church and human rights groups say the migrants passing through are falling prey to kidnappers, extortionists and killers while the Mexican government does little to protect them. The national Human Rights Commission says it has recorded, in the last three years, 10,000 kidnappings of migrants, who are most frequently seized by predatory gangs who demand money from the victims' families in their home countries.
In Tultitlan, migrants also complain of being beaten, rousted and robbed, often by police officers.
Jose Juan Hernandez, a state human rights officer, said he is investigating 30 formal complaints from the first half of this year. Hernandez, who regularly visits the migrants in their squalid, temporary encampments, provides water and tips on how not to fall into the hands of kidnappers and thieves.
"Very few want to stay in Mexico," he said, adding that he sometimes sees women or entire families with children as young as 5 trying to make their way north. "They suffer a lot and risk everything. They see the economic situation is bad here and they don't like the way they are treated."
But many migrants stay because they fear that life would be worse in the U.S., where they could be arrested if caught after entering illegally and where job opportunities have withered. Money often is tight and many relatives in Central America or in the U.S. who might have helped are themselves strapped.
Hernandez has seen the number of arriving migrants increase by about 30% in the last year, with a huge uptick in Hondurans after the coup d'etat on June 28 that ousted their president and threw their country into political turmoil.
Among some residents of Tultitlan, there is sympathy. Nearly every day, bread distributor Jose Manzano drives by the knots of men sheltering under the overpass. When he can, he stops and hands out pallets of surplus bread from the trunk of his car.
"I see hunger, I see need, and I see gratitude in their eyes," said Manzano, 55. "If I can help a little, why not?"
Patricia Camarena, an activist who works with the advocacy group Apoyo al Migrante, or Migrant Support, also brings help and basic first aid. She scolded authorities for what she sees as historical inaction.
"I feel angry because how can Mexico ask for immigration reform [of the United States], as well as talk about human rights?" she said as she washed the feet of a young migrant and gave him a pair of fresh socks. "I cannot stay quiet about what's happening."
A new city administration that took office in August, however, feels differently. Mayor Marco Calzada said he wants the federal government to deport the migrants. When they were just passing through, it was a manageable problem, he said, but now large numbers are staying and forming criminal bands.
Officials say the Tultitlan municipality, with a population of more than 432,000, sees hundreds of immigrants arriving each week.
"The numbers are over the top," Calzada said. "They have invaded neighborhoods. They steal, they kidnap, they rape."
City Hall is fielding complaints, the mayor added, but neither he nor his public security director, Jose Luis Medina, could provide statistics. Asked about complaints from migrants about police harassment and robbery, Medina would say only that about 10% of the previous municipal administration's police department was fired for abuse, corruption or other infractions.
Advocacy groups counter that the Central Americans are being made scapegoats for all local crime.
By the overpass, the migrants sit in small groups or around rudimentary campfires. Some beg, some use drugs and some pick up legitimate day labor.
"I don't want to go to the U.S. They arrest you there," said Edil Alberto Perdomo, 24, of Honduras, who gets by on handouts. "We aren't bothering anyone. We only want respect, we don't want problems. I want to remain here but be left in peace."
Douglas Martinez, a 29-year-old Salvadoran with a green bandanna on his head, has stuck around to earn a bit of money working in a junkyard. He seemed to be something of a leader in the group, directing others to stand in line to receive donated water.
Martinez said he's been deported from the U.S. twice but still wants to try to reach Los Angeles to see his wife and children, who live there. "You know the need to see your family," he said.
Like Martinez, Kevin Eduardo, a 13-year-old Honduran, and many others said they were trying to reach the U.S. Whether they will make it is anyone's guess.
Times staff writer Deborah Bonello contributed to this report.