Hell Ride in a Truck: Sandra’s Story

Sandra Reyes retells her harrowing journey from El Salvador to the United States                       © ChPImages/Chporcel

By Niurka Pineiro

Sandra tells in graphic, gruesome detail the pain and degradation that a migrant who’s desperate to start a new life somewhere has to undergo. It’s more painful to see these images in one’s mind than the scenes we see in the movies because these weren’t based on a true story. This is the true story.

Eighteen years ago, when Sandra Reyes was just 20, she accepted a relative’s offer to help her migrate to the United States.  She left home in May of 1996 and arrived in Houston, Texas two months later. But what happened in between is a nightmare she would rather forget than retell. She only retells this to warn others who, like her, want to migrate at any cost. . . . so they could have an idea of what the costs really are.

Unsafe for a Woman

“My mother was a single mother to my sister and me.  At that time, the violence and intimidation from the gangs was just beginning in El Salvador.  People knew there were three women alone in our house. So, many times, men would knock on our door in the middle of the night. And our mother would tell us to hide under the bed.  We moved to another neighborhood, and there we were robbed at gunpoint.  A man put a gun to my head and told me to step aside or he would kill me.”

Her mother eventually decided to leave the capital and move to San Miguel, a town in the western part of the country.  

“After I finished school, I began looking for work in San Miguel, but there were no jobs there so I returned to San Salvador.  There, I found a job. But the salary I made could not last me until the end of the month,” Sandra tells us. “I was always afraid because of the violence all around me. Women were being stalked and raped. . . . But at that time, I still had not made a conscious decision to leave the country.”

Looking for a Safer Place the Dangerous Way

On Mother’s Day 1996, Sandra went to visit her mother in San Miguel. It was there that she spoke to her aunt’s husband who was a coyote or “migrant smuggler.” It was then that Sandra started setting her sights on foreign shores. 

“He told my mother that if I had the courage to travel to the US, and she gave her permission, he would take me free of charge.  At that time coyotes were charging around $3,000.  I thought, is he kidding?  Is he serious about the offer?  If he’s serious I want to leave.”

The smuggler named Cándido told Sara to call him tio or ‘uncle’ so that the men would respect her and keep their hands off her. 

Was she aware of the dangers that awaited her?  Was she afraid?

“No I was not.  Really, at that moment I didn’t think of the dangers.”

She called a cousin in Houston, Texas who said he would help her and take her in.  But he also told her about the potential dangers of such a trip, especially for women.  He had made the journey a few years earlier and had seen women constantly being abused – even raped.  

“That’s when I started praying to God to protect me because I was determined to go,” Sandra recalls. Cándido told her they were to leave the day after.  “I wrote a letter to my employer, packed a couple of things and we left.” 

The Ride of Her Life

The first part of the trip to Guatemala was by bus.  When they arrived in Huehuetenango, they had to stay for two weeks because the police were checking all vehicles for drugs.  Coyotes paid local residents to house and feed the migrants along the way, while indigenous people gave them food and shelter.  

Their group of 50 was put on a truck to Mexico.  But then two other coyotes arrived with their own groups. And 200 people ended up being crammed into that truck.

There were men, women, children and elderly people inside. “It was horrible.  We were so tightly packed.  At first I was able to sit down but then we all had to stand. There was no room to move. . . . and no oxygen,” says Sandra. “There was a baby. He was crying because he couldn’t breathe. Some of the men held him up high so he could get some oxygen from a little crack in the roof of the truck. . . . I remember saying, ‘God help me because I cannot stand this anymore and I am going to die.’” 

Hiding in the Mountains

One of the truck’s tires blew and everyone was told to get out.  They were in the middle of nowhere with no water or food, and told to go up the mountain to avoid detection.  Cándido told her he was going to town to ask a contact to bring his truck and rescue his group of 50.  

They were told that the federales (Mexican police) had been alerted and would be coming to arrest them.  So they had to climb even higher.  The slopes were muddy because of the rains, and Sandra slipped and fell on a large boulder.  She lost consciousness, and people thought she was dead.  “Thank God I came to and escaped with just a large scrape on my face.”  

Their group of 200 was led into a large, warehouse-type structure – where they were shocked to see 300 other migrants already there. 

“There were migrants from all over the world.  I remember a group of around 20 Koreans who were tired of waiting and got their hands on some knives and started a fight with the men in charge,” Sandra still recalls with fear. It wasn’t until after two days in this packed warehouse that they were given food.

Today she’s able to laugh when she remembers, “The first meal we had was a very large purple tortilla – I had never seen anything like it before – and sardines.  I had always hated sardines. But that meal was the best I had ever eaten!”  

In total, they spent 10 days confined in that warehouse to avoid discovery – without toilets or bathing facilities. But this was all in vain as the federales eventually found them. They didn’t arrest the smugglers, however. Instead, they asked them for money.  Cándido paid them off and his group was allowed to continue their journey.  

Human Herd Inside a Truck

Early the next morning, a very large truck arrived.  There was a hidden room at the very front of the trailer.  The smuggler told everyone not to eat or drink anything so no one would have to pass solid or liquid waste while in transit.  “But you know many do not obey orders. Oh my, it was horrendous. People got sick and started vomiting on top of the person next to them. Some had diarrhea. The stench was deadly. . . .  and we were inside that small compartment for two days,” Sandra painfully recalls. 

They finally arrived in Leon, Guanajuato where they stayed in private homes until the next leg of the trip could be arranged. Cándido had to return to El Salvador and left his nephew in charge of the group. 

Sexual Abuse and Opportunism

“There were men who took advantage of the women.  They would touch you, insinuate things, and finally force themselves on you. The men in charge were very abusive of the women. Some of the women allowed this because they thought it would make the journey easier and safer.  Some women really used sex to their advantage. One woman would call her husband to ask for money while sleeping with one of the men in charge.”  

“I was disgusted but at the same time relieved. As long as some women were willing to offer their bodies, I would be able to escape sexual abuse,”  Sandra says.

In León they took buses to Matamoros.  That was the final destination in Mexico and the only thing separating them from Brownsville, Texas was the infamous Rio Grande. “The men told us to take off all of our clothes to cross the river.  I fought that and kept my underclothes.” 

Almost Dead in the Desert

Once in the US, the guide lost his way and they were stranded in the desert for five days. Sandra and her companions had to drink from a dirty stream. Everyone got ill and had diarrhea, were vomiting, had fever, and were dehydrated. At midnight, pick-up trucks arrived to take them to Houston.

The group squeezed themselves into every available inch of the trucks. “I was stuffed under the dashboard on the passenger side,” says Sandra. “For more than 10 hours, I was crouching in that small space and couldn’t move. I could no longer feel my legs. . . . my knees were hurting.” 

At this point in her narrative, Sandra takes a break and a drink of water.  

One More Time?

Would she do it again knowing all of the things she had to endure?  I had not finished the question when she loudly replied – “Yes!” 

She takes a long breath and continues:  “From the moment I arrived in this country, I said, ‘I will never return to my country.  I saw all of the suffering that my mother endured.  I will not tolerate any abuse from a man.  My uncle would drink and beat up his wife.  The life of a woman in El Salvador is to put up with abuse from your man.’”

“I hope that President Obama’s immigration initiative will help me.   Everything I went through and have gone through in the U.S. has been worthwhile.  My life and the life of my children are much, much better here.  I want a better life for my children,” Sandra ends.