ZACATECAS, Mexico—Manuel Martínez Esparza recalls entering the white tractor-trailer full of people, without any refrigeration or light. People began to complain. They were short of breath and choking.
The last thing Martínez, 35, remembers about the "tractor-trailer of death" is being hugged by his brother, Ricardo.
"My brother and I would just tell ourselves to hold on, hold on until we arrived at San Antonio," he said. "I don’t know when I blacked out."
Martínez survived. His brother didn't.
On July 23, 2017, in the deadliest human trafficking tragedy in at least a decade, ten migrants died after traveling for hours in a packed tractor-trailer with at least one hundred others, in suffocating heat, attempting to get to the U.S. from Mexico.
Those who survived the extreme circumstances, however, have been grappling with health problems, mental trauma, debts and extreme poverty—while still hoping to be able to live in the U.S. Now, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, some of them are chronically ill and don't have money to buy food.
Three years after the incident, they haven’t completely escaped the trailer.
Dreams of a visa
Martínez spent almost twelve weeks in the hospital in San Antonio, two of them in a coma. Texas immigration attorneys visited survivors like Martínez and began visa procedures for them. A U visa would grant them legal status in the United States in a matter of months as survivors of a crime.
His future, though, has been more tortuous than that. Martínez often feels tachycardia and headaches; he limps, his back hurts, his scars stretch and he gasps for air when it is very hot or when there is very little space around him. He walks as if he were a much older man.
At the Texas hospital, Martínez was receiving mental health treatment. When he returned to Mexico, he couldn’t pay for it. He also stopped going to the hospital more than a year ago due to the steep costs.
“What I feel inside—I am no longer the same person. It's as if I wasn't myself. There are many things that make people laugh—but I don't find anything funny," Martínez said. His wife is upset that he is not happy about weddings or parties or quinceañeras. But he can’t.
The only thing that used to give him a certain hope was the idea of obtaining a U visa to be able to return to the U.S. and, simply, survive. The waiting times for these visas have been increasing in the last years.
During a visit to the area in the fall of 2019, there wasn't anyone who didn't have a relative or neighbor in the U.S.; some had spent time there.
Speaking recently over the phone from Zacatecas, Manuel said the future is even more uncertain now.
"The coronavirus is very bad for us, we cannot do anything," he said. He has been borrowing money, receiving fifty dollars a month from a friend that he uses to buy some food, toilet paper and detergent the first two weeks of every month.
"I am asking people on the other side who are still working a little," he says over the phone.
"The other side" is the U.S.—and immigrants who are also affected by the pandemic. They were, until recently and from a distance, the real bread-winners for families in rural Zacatecas, one of the poorest regions in Mexico who rely on these remittances.
In these remote towns and villages, the North is not just a location. It is a strong and deep-rooted goal that is transmitted from parents to children, between friends and neighbors. It seals and separates families and it's always present.
Sometimes Martínez speaks via WhatsApp with Jorge de Santos. They never met, but both of them were in the same trailer-tractor and they survived.
“Do I buy diapers or my pills?
In April, De Santos, 44, started to empty his house to get food: he sold a television, a refrigerator, a telephone, his work tools, and even an old van he used to drive to get to the few construction jobs he found before the pandemic.
De Santos was the last one who got on the tractor-trailer, he recalls. "I started to see people praying and saying they wanted to kill themselves. I started to think, I'm going to die here too. I just squatted and sat down and asked God to do whatever he wanted." He lost consciousness before arriving at San Antonio.
He lives in a borrowed, half-finished house, with his wife and two of his three children in the state of Aguascalientes.
“Sometimes I don't have anything," said De Santos. "I say, do I buy diapers or do I buy my pills? It's better I buy diapers for the boy, or milk”.
His health has been poor since the San Antonio tragedy, but he stopped taking medication and going to medical appointments.
"My kidneys were affected. Now, when I walk, I get agitated, my breath gets short. I get dizzy and tired,” De Santos said. He keeps hundreds of pages of medical reports in English, a language he does not understand.
What the reports say is that he suffered strong heatstroke, which led to his coma, clotting and kidney failure. The documents indicate he needed constant medical appointments, medical treatment, physical therapy and a strict diet. None of this is part of his new reality.
Some survivors, like De Santos, returned to Aguascalientes. But others, without a work or a U visa or hope for the future, paid smugglers—again—to cross the border into the U.S.
"They became obsessed. They see the others leaving and they also want to leave,” said José Luis Moreno, father of one of the survivors of the tragedy.
"Since I was little I wanted this”
Juan Daniel Tiscareño, 23, and his close friend José Rodríguez Espitia left the same town for the U.S. Tiscareño, 23, survived the trailer of death; his friend didn't. Tiscareño returned to Mexico while waiting for his U visa.
But the small borrowed house where Tiscareño lived with his wife, Galilea, and their 4-year-old son in became a cage for him.
At night he screamed, the nightmares waking him up, complaining of chest pains. His teenage brother would bring him home after finding him drunk and crying, saying he couldn't bear that much paon, according to several relatives.
He decided there was a solution. Without warning his mother so she would not fear a new accident, Tiscareño crossed again into the U.S. in July of 2019. He's worked in Texas and now in the Midwest.
He says that in the United States the hunger is less severe and he can send money to his family. He has already paid a debt of 7,000 dollars to the smugglers and has yet to return a few thousand more for the trip to San Antonio that ended in tragedy.
Other survivors fled the tractor-trailer and never sought medical help to avoid being detained by local authorities, silently carrying physical and mental pain.
Tiscareño tries to go unnoticed in the small towns where he's working. In the pandemic, he continues to work, wearing a mask, harvesting in the fields.
"Since I was little I wanted this, to come to the United States," he said. "I have seen that my uncles made good on their future by coming here. They have their good houses, good cars and they return to Mexico and live well.”
He feels he is living the same life story as his uncles. But his has been much more painful.
This story is part of Reporting the Border, a program of the International Center for Journalists in alliance with the Border Center for Journalists and Bloggers, which financed reporting in Texas and Mexico. Local journalist Jennifer González participated in the production of this story.