The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail

Image of The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail
Release Date: 
October 8, 2013
Reviewed by: 

“. . . eloquent, gritty, and incisive . . .”

The best place to interview a migrant is on top of a cargo train hurtling north through the Mexican night toward the US border. Journalist Oscar Martinez knows this from personal experience. “You are considered an equal there. You’re in their territory and have, by boarding the train, signed a pact of solidarity.”

Nicknamed “La Bestia” (The Beast), the train is used annually by more than a quarter of a million Central Americans desperate for a better life, or, increasingly, fleeing gang violence. But their ride is far from free, as they are enmeshed in a web of fees to underworld gatekeepers.

Clinging like ticks to roof struts, many are killed or maimed by the bite of the lurching beast, or by the coyotes (smugglers of migrants), bandits and kidnappers who prey on the vulnerable.

Mr. Martinez spent two years on the perilous migrant trails through Mexico to El Norte, riding The Beast eight times, trudging desolate byways, dodging checkpoints and assailants, frequenting shelters, bars and brothels, and taking a shift tour with the US border patrol. In the process, he interviewed migrants, coyotes, priests, NGO workers, local residents, government agents, prostitutes, journalists, police, narcos, and other gang members, often encountering threats to his own life.

This book’s chapters were published originally as dispatches in, Latin America’s first online newspaper based in El Salvador and committed to exposing human rights violations. Strung together like beads on a rosary, the migrant testimonies in these vignettes tell a litany of horrors.

The old rules of illegal migration no longer hold because violence has both escalated and mutated over the past decade under the dominance of powerful drug cartels. They have diversified into mass kidnappings, requiring ransom by Western Union from relatives in the US. Meanwhile, the funneling effect of high-tech border militarization forces migrants and drug smugglers to share increasingly constricted terrain.

Mr. Martinez speaks for these Central American “migrants who don’t matter” without appropriating their voices. His writing is eloquent, gritty, and incisive, embedded in vividly observed detail, while his finely honed interviewing skills are evident in the trust shown by informants with everything to lose.

Migrants flee Central America to escape gang recruitment, threats to family, sexual abuse, absolute poverty, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. “Death isn’t simple in El Salvador. It’s like a sea: you’re subject to its depths, its creatures, its darkness.”

Next is the most dangerous segment of the migrant trail in southern Mexico, where rape is to be expected, and brutal beatings and murders are commonplace. “Here on this rock, they rape. There by that bush, they kill.” Many victims are never found. “Bones here aren’t a metaphor for what’s past, but for what’s coming.”

The locals seem deaf to screams, as today’s bandits were yesterday’s day laborers and ranch hands. Here, residents are now predators of an easy prey in their own back yard. A culture of violence under institutionalized corruption has become endemic and “there is nobody to assure the safety of migrants in Mexico.”

Migrant women are easy targets for human trafficking as well as rape on the road. The Guatemalan government estimates that eight out of every ten women suffer some kind of sexual abuse in Mexico. Women travel knowing this will happen, such that rape has almost lost its terror as just another tax to be paid.

This transformation of the migrant woman’s body into a product is termed cuerpomátic. “The body becomes a credit card, a new platinum edition ‘bodymatic’ which buys you a little safety, a little bit of cash and the assurance that your travel buddies won’t get killed.”

For some women, the bars and brothels of southern Mexico are the end of the trail. Many are forced into sexual slavery, and later accept their lot as they see no other options and make more money than back home. And 30 beers a night will numb them to the service of customers who prefer the lighter skin and fleshier bodies of Salvadorian and Honduran women.

Migrants don’t just get raped, maimed, kidnapped, shot, or hacked to death. Their minds as well as their bodies bear the scars of at least a month’s journey through Mexico. “Living in fear leaves something inside them, a trace and a swelling that grabs hold of their thoughts and cycles through their heads over and over.”

Should they try to ride The Beast, which might only take a few days, if they can cling to the box cars without falling asleep, avoid being attacked by bandits, kidnapped by narcos, or fail to find a reliable coyote? Migrants’ stories about riding the bucking beast are the stuff of nightmares about legs chopped off by wheels or a ball with a woman’s hair rolling beside the tracks.

Or should migrants try the relatively safer but much longer mountainous land routes, bypassing checkpoints, at the mercy of unscrupulous villagers, roving bandits and narco inflitrators posing as migrants? Either way, fear and uncertainty are constants.

Feared most is Mexico’s largest criminal syndicate, Los Zetas, originally deserters from army special forces who splintered off from the Gulf Cartel, now infamous for their extreme brutality and high-tech weapons. In regions where Los Zetas hold sway “there are places where the fear is so thick you breathe it.”

When Los Zetas take over, they control everything. “They’ve monopolized crime—kidnappings, extortions, murder, drug trafficking, retail, pirated movies, migrant guides.” They spread like a cancer through the fabric of small-town, provincial and national life –the girl selling sodas, the taco man, the policeman, the mayor, the soldier, the shop keeper, the taxi driver, the petty delinquent, the state official, all could be employed by or somehow beholden to Los Zetas. If you tell, you die—horribly!

Mr. Martinez paints an ugly picture of contemporary Mexico, especially since he is not just writing about the seamy underbelly of society, but also about those who know of, but ignore, or are complicit in gross inhumanity. The escalation of violence from isolated incidents to epidemic scale, from machetes to assault rifles marks the end of an age of innocence when even the underworld followed a code of ethics of sorts.