ARRIAGA, Mexico - The Salvadoran migrant was trying to skirt new police patrols in southern Mexico when a band of criminals shot him in the neck.
With Mexico cracking down on a tide of illegal crossings at its southern border with Guatemala, Central American migrants like Albert have to take new, and in his case riskier, routes to hide on their trek to the United States.
The authorities are now stopping a freight train known as "The Beast" that migrants have been riding for decades on their way north despite the risk of deadly falls on the tracks.
The new measures were announced in July after the United States declared a humanitarian crisis due to a surge of unaccompanied Central American children who have been caught at the US-Mexico border.
For Albert and two relatives, this cat-and-mouse game led to a near fatal run-in with a band of criminals as they headed to Arriaga, a town in the state of Chiapas known as a transit point for Central Americans heading north.
Recuperating at the Good Pastor Shelter for migrants in the nearby city of Tapachula, Albert, a 29-year-old who refused to give his last name, recounted his near-death experience.
His group was hiding away from the train tracks when they were ambushed by criminals who wanted to take $70 off his pockets.
"We wanted to avoid immigration officials but didn't expect we would run into criminals," Albert said, relieved that he managed to escape the assailants alive.
'Things got ugly'
An estimated 200,000 migrants cross Mexico's southern border every year and face the risk of extortion, kidnapping and even murder at the hands of drug cartels and other criminals on their way north.
Authorities say they deported some 6,000 Central Americans in August. The Mexican government says the new measures seek to protect migrants who risk their lives on top of The Beast.
US officials say fewer unaccompanied children have been caught at the US-Mexico border in the past two months.
Migrants and workers at shelters say agents from the National Migration Institute and soldiers have been operating in Arriaga since early August, often at night.
"Things got ugly, with migrants running everywhere, on the train tracks and into modest hotels" along the railway, said a hotel manager.
El Salvador has asked Mexico's National Human Rights Commission to investigate an August 6 operation in which 25 girls, 16 women and eight men were detained, said the Salvadoran general consul in Chiapas, Herbert Guzman.
"They were taken violently, treated like criminals, without being explained why they were detained," Guzman said, adding that they were denied immediate consular aid.
Some said they were struck with stun guns and others claimed their money was seized, the consul said as he fielded a steady stream of calls and reviewed documents in his small consular office.
The road between Arriaga and the Suchiate River, which serves as a natural border between Mexico and Guatemala, is patrolled by immigration police vehicles that indiscriminately stop buses to check papers of migrants.
Some migrants now trek across hills for days instead of taking speedier drives to avoid a second customs control 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the border.
Three other migration posts and a military checkpoint have also been installed to review vehicles.
The Misericordia Migrant House in Arriaga has received around 40 per cent fewer migrants in recent weeks than in June, said its director, Carlos Bartolo.
The crackdown has made it more expensive to travel north, with smugglers demanding $9,000 for the journey, Bartolo said.
"It's a question of supply and demand," he said.
Last week, only 50 migrants waited to board The Beast compared to the hundreds who normally hitch a ride.
"It's hard getting here. There's a fistful of checkpoints," said a 37-year-old Honduran man whose feet were red and swollen from walking barefoot to Arriaga in the bushes under a storm.
Melvin Humberto, a Honduran, ran between the tropical vegetation to hop on the freight train in the dead of night.
"Even with fear we want to get to the United States," he said.