A review of The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail by Óscar Martínez
Living in Nicaragua, I regularly meet people who have migrated or want to migrate to neighbouring countries. I’ve also met people who take their chances going to Spain without a visa (including one who claimed to be going ‘by bus’; she was actually going to El Salvador). I know people who’ve migrated to the US and made enough money to come back on visits. But I’ve never met anyone preparing to make the trip north by land, following the migrant trails to Texas or New Mexico, and then crossing the Rio Grande without bona fide papers. If I did, I’d have to tell them what I’ve learnt from ‘The Beast’ by Óscar Martínez.
The Beast is the collective name for the freight trains (there are no passenger trains) that make their way from some of Mexico’s southern cities towards Mexico City and then north to the US border. The trains are an essential means of transport for migrants who have little money and may need to travel 3,000 miles or more before they even enter the US. But they are also deadly, and not only because Central Americans cling precariously to the tops of freight cars from which (if they fall asleep, for example) they can easily drop under the wheels. The train routes, and the trains themselves, are plagued by violent gangs and casual bandits who want to rob, rape or kidnap migrants. Unlike any other train journey in the world, there is a high probability that a ride on The Beast will end in death, mutilation or some kind of captivity.
Martínez is an extraordinary writer who pursues his story like the most assiduous investigative journalist, but writes it in such a captivating way that it reads like a novel. It’s difficult to think of a book or even a documentary or feature film (and there are several) that captures the migrant story more effectively. The book is full of drama, but the drama comes from the tales of the migrants themselves, or the people who assist them, as Martínez persuades migrants to tell him where they came from, why they left, and what is happening to them as they head northwards.
On just one 24-hour leg of The Beast’s journey that Martínez covers, there are about 100 armed assaults on the train. One reason is that a large group of migrants is being protected by ‘polleros’ (literally, ‘chicken-keepers’) who they have paid to accompany them. But the polleros’ line of communication with the gang who controls that stretch of line has broken down, and they are under attack. They repel their attackers (who follow the train by road) several times before eventually abandoning the train with their ‘pollos’ (chickens) to melt into the countryside.
In southern Mexico, the main threat to the migrants is bandits, gang rivalry and failure to meet the demands of those who want to exploit them. As they get towards the border, the threats change. First, they are now firmly in Narcoland, where priority for crossing the border goes to drug mules, and mere migrants are a dispensable inconvenience. Second, if they don’t pay their dues, to the polleros, taxi or bus drivers, coyotes or others whose livelihoods depend on migrants but are themselves beholden to the drugs mafia, they are likely to get beaten up or even killed. Third, there is the complex and ever-changing issue of which places provide the safest opportunities to cross: a wrong decision can lead to capture and deportation, or worse. Fourth, by this time, most migrants will have been robbed of any money they once had, perhaps several times, yet crossing the border with a half-chance of success might mean paying a further $1,000 or more to someone who might – if they are lucky in their choice – lead them across safely. And finally, of course, they have to evade the border patrols waiting for them on the other side.
If there is one weakness of Martínez’s account it is that it concentrates on the hazards migrants find en route, rather than on those from which they are attempting to escape. This is understandable, as he is talking to people all the time whose immediate priority is surviving that day and reaching and crossing that distant frontier. Yet it’s impossible to read the book without a growing horror for what those migrants from Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala have left behind. After all, if they are willing to risk their lives to make what must easily be the worst regularly made journey in the Americas, and to do so in many cases not just once but by making four or five or more attempts, then it is glaringly obvious that what they are escaping must be much worse than what they have to endure on their escape.
Read the book, imagine what it must be like to ride on top of The Beast at night time, waiting for lights to appear that in all likelihood will be bandits or kidnappers, and then think how scared those migrants must be of the violence or deprivation in the poor neighbourhoods they come from in San Salvador or San Pedro Sula, to have the guts to make this terrible journey north.
Investigative journalism is important and is under threat in Mexico and the ‘northern triangle’ of Central American countries. I’ve been asked to give mention to a guide, written by one journalist to his colleagues, which can help them protect their work.