MEXICO CITY — Fifteen former migrants, all missing limbs, left El Progreso, Honduras, without money in late March, heading for Mexico, where many had been mutilated while riding the rails through the country in ill-fated attempts to reach the United States.
The men arrived in Mexico City about two weeks later, requesting a meeting with President Enrique Pena Nieto and pressing their demands that the government make visas available for those transiting Mexico. The visas would make migration safer, they said.
"This is the cruel face of immigration. It's the dark side that hasn't been shared," said Jose Efrain Vasquez Izaguirre, 33, who lost a leg 13 years ago in Chiapas state while attempting to jump aboard a train. He was forced to hop nearly 200 yards on one foot to find help.
"Each person who loses a limb leaves four or five more in misery (back home)," he said.
Allowing for visas would make it unnecessary for migrants to risk their lives and limbs by riding the length of the country atop freight trains.
The men said they would stay in Mexico City until they met with Pena Nieto and expressed some disappointment with only being received April 11 by an undersecretary in the Interior Ministry, who promised visas to stay in the country on humanitarian grounds.
The visit received widespread media attention, especially when the men arrived in Chiapas state and started walking -- many on artificial limbs -- toward Mexico City. The National Immigration Institute subsequently issued special permits for their visit.
The visit also drew increased attention to the trains heading north known as "La Bestia," or "The Beast," so named for the way they mangle and maim many migrants trying to climb aboard. The Association of Disabled Returning Migrants, which organized the trip, has tallied at least 452 Hondurans who have lost limbs on their journey.
Those unable to afford a smuggler to take them the length of the country find an alternative in the trains, which also offer the migrants a method of avoiding the authorities.
"The main reason they take the train is due to the lack of a visa," says Alberto Xicotencatl, director of the Saltillo Diocese's migrant shelter.
The train ride proves so difficult, Xicotencatl said, because many migrants are physically exhausted by their journeys, having slept little and often going hungry. Many of the men in Mexico City told stories of fainting while riding atop rail cars and waking up with missing limbs.
"There's a certain fatigue," said Jose Luis Hernandez, president of the association of disabled migrants, who "fainted and fell" between rail cars in 2005, losing a leg, arm and three fingers on his remaining hand.
Hernandez knew the risks of migrating but headed north anyway, thinking, "This would never happen to me."
The men traveling to Mexico City told stories of poverty and desperation in Honduras, the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, which made them set out for the U.S. in the hope of securing a job in which wages in low-paid work are enough to provide for better lives for family members back home.
"If you go to the U.S., in one or two years you can (earn enough) to buy a house. Life changes for you after that," said Jose Jeremias Gomez, 41, a farmhand, who lost both legs in 2005.
Poverty motivated many migrants to leave in past years -- and still does. But now violence acts as an impulse, especially with gangs carrying out crimes such as extortion and the murder rate in Honduras ranking worst in the world.
"Many people flee the country to save their lives," Vasquez said.
"We tell them not to leave, but they run more risks at home."
The risks of the journey through Mexico also have changed. Organized crime groups now charge migrants $100 to take trains. Criminals even climb aboard along the way, forcing migrants to jump off if they have no money.
Organized crime kidnaps migrants, too. Taxi driver Wilfredo Filiu Garay, 47, was kidnapped with his son, while passing through Veracruz state in 2010. He was held three weeks and had his hands hit with a pipe so many times his fingers are permanently crooked. He was released after relatives paid a $3,000 ransom.
He tried to transit Mexico again but fell off of a boxcar and lost a leg. Garay figures only "four or five" out of every 100 migrants leaving Honduras successfully arrives in the U.S. But dissuading young men and women from leaving is difficult.
"They don't care about the risks. They care about the American dream," he said.
"There are a few that get lucky and make it," which gives others hope, he added.
Life is difficult for the migrants returning mutilated to Honduras. Jobs are scarce and discrimination is common, factors they say motivates their activism.
"We can't do much," said Norman Varela, spokesman for the migrant group. "But we can do something for those that come after us."