|Father Alejandro Solalinde has spent the last five years running a shelter for undocumented migrants [Al Jazeera]
Ixtepec, Mexico – To protect the undocumented migrants in his flock, Father Alejandro Solalinde heads for the freight train tracks, flanked by two bodyguards toting automatic assault rifles.
This is how god's work must be done in southern Mexico, where human traffickers, organ thieves, and drug gangs prowl trainyards, looking for travelling migrants to capture, rape, rob or harass.
As night falls, the freight train - known as la bestia (or "the beast") - rolls by with dozens of people, mostly from Central America, waving as they ride on top of boxcars.
Solalinde and his guards run towards the train, offering tired migrants a warm meal and a safe place to sleep at a church-run shelter before they trek onwards to the US, or, as the travellers call it, 'el Norte'.
In 2010 alone, some 20,000 migrants were kidnapped, usually by drug cartels demanding ransom payments from their families, according to Mexico's National Human Rights Commission.
"A lot of people are afraid," says Jesus, 17, a migrant from Peru who didn't want to give his last name. He ran away from home at age ten, and lived in a cave outside of Lima, Peru's capital, "eating birds and doing whatever to survive".
Now Jesus is heading for the US, hoping to find decent work - without getting hurt or robbed on the way.
Violence against migrants seems to have intensified recently. On December 16, up to 50 migrants were kidnapped from the train in Oaxaca state, apparently by a drug cartel, with nine others captured on December 22.
"I've been on the road since August, since the 72 people were massacred in Tamaulipas," says Luis, an El Salvadorian, referring to a particularly brutal massacre of migrants in northern Mexico, allegedly committed by the Zetas drug gang.
"I'm still scared of taking the train, but I've got no money, so I have no other option. I'm just a poor illegal trying to get home," says Luis, who lived and worked in the US before being deported.
"The government should start protecting us, instead of going after us," he says, citing complaints that corrupt security forces extort money or sex from migrants.
Police frequently raid the train, deporting everyone they find, Father Solalinde says.
According to an April 2010 report from Amnesty International: "Persistent failure by the authorities to tackle abuses against irregular migrants has made their journey through Mexico one of the most dangerous in the world," with migrants facing a "major human rights crisis".
The struggle to protect undocumented people like Jesus and Luis is usually relegated to the shadows, but it recently developed an overtly public dimension, with hundreds rallying in towns where the train passes through.
Change for the better
"Things are changing now," says Elvira Arellano, an activist with the organisation Latin Americans without Frontiers, who spoke at a public rally of about 250 people in Chahuites, a dusty migrant town in Oaxaca state.
For Arellano, this isn't just a political issue: it's personal. After facing a deportation order in the US, she spent one year living in the sanctuary of a church in Chicago, before American authorities sent her back to Mexico.
"The migrants don't keep quiet anymore, they are willing to talk about what is happening to them," she says. Luis, Jesus and several dozens of other migrants also attended the rally organised by Father Solalinde and local NGOs.
While travelling on freight trains without proper documentation is a crime by Mexican federal law, some local governments say they have started trying to protect the migrants.
The governor of Oaxaca actually met with Luis during the protest caravan, likely in response to public pressure for better protection for migrants.
Aleida Serrano Rosado, a legislative deputy from Oaxaca's state government, spoke at the rally in Chahuites.
As the head of the Commission for Immigrants Affairs in Oaxaca, Rosado helped pass a new measure, or Fiscalia, to "prosecute all those [who commit] human rights abuses against the migrants".
Rosado thinks the new regime will "help clean up the system because organised crime has infiltrated the police," she told Al Jazeera after her speech.
About 500,000 migrants, mostly from Central America, cross into the US each year, according to Mexico's Human Rights Commission.
'Land of the free', for some
As rallies for safety and respect spring up in Mexico, American politicians are debating major changes to citizenship laws: specifically a plan to revoke birthright citizenship.
Under the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution, children born on US soil are granted automatic citizenship, regardless of the legal status held by their parents.
But some lawmakers in Washington plan to introduce new legislation to change that rule, and they think it can happen without a constitutional amendment.
Those proposed changes directly affect Arellano and Luis, as they both have children living in the US who have citizenship.
"I've got three kids over there," says Luis in perfect English. "Why would I want to be in El Salvador when all my people are over there?"
With the recession still walloping much of the US, the number of Mexicans crossing the Rio Grande has dropped off. But Central Americans like Luis are still flocking across the border in search of work and a better life.
The poor state of the US economy doesn't worry Luis. "I am a tire-fitter and my friend has four tire shops. He'll pay me: cash-money," he says, smiling.
A haven on a dangerous journey
Two days after our interview in Chahuites, Luis and other migrants from the protest arrive by freight train at Father Solalinde's shelter in Ixtepec, just over 100km from Chahuites.
Between 100 and 150 people usually pass through the shelter's metal gates every three days, Solalinde says. Upon arriving inside the open-air shelter, migrants line up where they are photographed.
This is a voluntary procedure; they want to be documented so someone will know if anything bad happens along the way.
The centre runs on a shoestring budget, with phone calls and Internet access apparently eating up most of the cash. A Mexican woman who supports Father Solalinde's work donated building supplies for the open-air kitchen and the refrigerators, says a volunteer at the shelter, a masters student from the US.
After registering and making phone calls, migrants grab bowls of stew and packets of donated crackers to eat.
Tonight, a local actress has organised a movie showing; there is something very 21st century about a group of poverty stricken undocumented migrants - fresh off a freight train - sitting down to watch a documentary projected onto a brick wall, about migrants hopping on freight trains.
In the documentary, Gael Garcia Bernal, the actor who played Che Guevara in the Motorcycle Diaries, stands beside Father Solalinde, extolling the need for Mexico to protect those who travel through this territory.
The shepherd and the flock
In real life, the priest is constantly on the move, talking and joking with migrants, taking cell-phone calls and directing volunteers.
He came into the job of defending the undocumented almost by chance. Five years ago, there was a meeting of priests in Ixtepec.
He was walking across the train tracks with the city's former priest when he commented on the migrants sleeping everywhere.
"Ya, they are always here," the former priest replied. "C'mon, I'll take you for breakfast, you'll have a delicious, delicious breakfast here, father, and then we will go to the meeting."
"I said, this is your flock - these people are in the territory of your parish - and you are the shepherd."
After learning about the conditions faced by migrants, Solalinde asked the bishop if he could take on the cause full-time.
He said: "Okay, but what will you live on?"
"He [the Bishop] came from the mentality that a priest can only sustain himself charging for the work of god," says Solalinde.
Clearly, the work doesn't pay well. His office and living quarters are a tiny room in the shelter, with a bookshelf, a small desk and a hammock strung across the centre. Solalinde says he always sleeps well.
When asked how the drug cartels and some elements within the Mexican government view his work, he can't contain himself.
"They hate me," he laughs, as his body guards keep watch nearby.
Follow Chris Arsenault On Twitter: @AJEchris