CORDOBA, Mexico – The biplane truck stopped at a dusty roadside where hundreds of caravan migrants were trying to drive north to reach the United States.
About 300 rattled aboard – mothers hustling babies next to strollers with scrawny teenagers traveling alone. They slid their fingers through the metal grilles and hung up as the engine came to life.
"Let's take care of the women and children," said Alberto Mendoza, organizer of Pueblo Sin Fronteras, an advocacy group that supports the migrants.
The group of 4,000 to 5,000 mostly Hondurans set out to Mexico City to gather in a sprawling sports complex where they could get food, shelter, medical care and even therapy when they figured out where to go next.
For many, the last leg of the journey had been treacherous. The organizers had asked Mexican officials to repatriate buses to transport the caravan, but instead the voyage consisted of moving rides, where migrants gasped in trunk loads, clinging to the sides of tractor-trailers or dangling from flatbed trucks. And Mexico City is still hundreds of miles from the US border, the ultimate destination of many migrants.
Activists say they are worried that migrants will be injured or ill. In Chiapas, a 25-year-old man died when, according to the prosecution, he fell off a truck. They also feared for their safety in Veracruz, a state notorious for kidnapping, organized crime and mass graves, including one found in 160 skulls in recent weeks.
"Many of these graves contain migrants," said human rights activist Andres Torres, who supported the caravan.
On Monday, migrants tried to take rides from the city of Cordoba since dawn and block the highway to the north, forcing trucks to pick them up. But the police ordered them to go two and a half miles to a toll station where they could board more safely.
When asked why they allowed precarious rides, a federal policeman raised his hands.
"We can not stop her," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
The double-decker truck that drove cars marked one of the riskier rides – a rattling, clanking pile of metal with large gaps in the floorboards to the highway below. The trailer was closed on the sides, but had an open roof, which made breathing easier. However, it was supposed to carry heavier cargo, and every jolt on the road shook the truck – and its passengers – heavily.
The truck left at 9:30 am for a 116-mile drive from Cordoba to Puebla.
As the trailer gained momentum, candy wrappers flew into the air. Exhaust clouds rose from the undercarriage. The black asphalt rushed like a river below.
On the upper deck, the young men whistled and waved past passing trucks, which honked as they clung to the chewing gum and chewed so as not to get sick.
But on the lower deck, just a few inches above the highway, the families were sleepy and tense.
Two women stuffed toilet paper in their ears to block the rush of traffic. The upper deck's legs dangled above them. Parents clinging to windy toddlers nodded and then tore awake.
"Do not sleep," warned Nora, a 35-year-old Honduran woman, her husband Wilmer, 38, holding his daughter Estefani, a girl in a pink sweater that turned two that day. The family asked that their surnames not be used because they feared being hurt if they were ever deported to Honduras.
It was not the life that Nora had envisioned for her family. Her sweater was stained with oil from the dangerous bicycles. She had hardly slept in the weeks since her escape from Honduras.
"Yes, that scares me. Any accident can happen to you, "she said. "Either I take the risk or stay poor."
For three hours they held. Babies screamed. The trailer hissed and rattled.
A toddler sitting in a stroller on the lower deck dropped a blue toy robot and reached for it, and a crowd stopped him for fear of falling through the gap. Carefully, they picked it up and gave it back.
As they approached Mexico City, the air cooled and the sun-baked migrants pressed together to keep warm.
"It's bad, I'm really worried," said Kenia Hernandez, a 26-year-old single mother from Colon, Honduras. "On this road you do what you have to do."
Beside her sat Livis Murillo, 25, a stranger from Copan, Honduras, who became a friend in the hours they sat together. Hernandez clutched her 2-year-old daughter Genesis, who wore a Minnie Mouse jumper and dirty pink tights.
Murillo held the girl's white shoes and her teddy bear in her hand.
"I do not mind helping," he said. "They are all tired."
Some truckers charged 100 pesos for the trip, migrants said. For most, however, the ride was free, a sign of support, said Walter Cuello, who helped organize the caravan in Honduras.
On the truck, some teenagers said they were not afraid of the trip and dangling around the edges without holding on.
Claudia Sordo, 18, said she was not afraid when her boyfriend smiled. But then she confessed that she was scared.
"It's very dangerous," she said. "People think it's easy for us to get there. It is not easy."
Just before 1pm, the truck stopped and the migrants got stiff and were filtered out. They were in Puebla, far from their destination in Mexico City, more than 80 miles away.
From there, those who went to the United States would have an even longer journey as they stayed hundreds of miles from the border.
Lenin Marroquin, 29, from Ceiba, Honduras, jumped off the trailer, stretched in the road and joined the group headed north to find their next drive.
"It was hard," he said of the trip. "But we have to finish it."