Óscar Martínez reports on the vortex of violence between Central America and the United States.
In 1938 Graham Greene wrote a cantankerous account of his travels in southern Mexico and its revolutionary anti-clericalism entitled The Lawless Roads. Nearly 80 years later, the roads across Mexico are still lawless and steeped in blood, but now the blood belongs to migrants not priests.
The bodies of 70,000 lie buried along the ‘death corridor’ of the migrants’ trail which links Central America with the US border. Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez’s The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail (originally Los Migrantes que no Importan – ‘The Migrants who Don’t Matter’) is an astonishingly powerful and courageous depiction of the inexplicable savagery and grotesque violence that accompanies migrants on this journey north. In gripping and colourful prose, each chapter documents the migrants as they edge ever closer to El Norte and the possibility of ‘una vida mejor’ (a better life).
The Beast (La Bestia) is the name of the freight trains that snake through Mexico to the US border. Every day around 1,500 Central American migrants climb on to it, risking death through falling (‘Just today I learned that a boy named José lost his head under that train’), amputation, and extortion and kidnapping from gangs. More than a quarter of a million Central Americans make this perilous journey each year.
It is the desolate rural territory, and especially La Arrocera ― ‘stained red by the blood of migrants, some say’ ― which is most dangerous. Women migrants face the additional threat of sexual assault, rape and mutilation. Martínez reveals that an estimated eight out of ten migrant women who attempt to cross Mexico suffer sexual abuse along the way. ‘En route to El Norte I saw, and began to understand, that the bodies left here are innumerable, and that rape is only one of the countless threats a migrant confronts.’ There are ‘bra trees’ whose only fruit is the underwear of assaulted women, inexplicably discarded as trophies.
In the fourth chapter Martínez narrates the plight of Central American women migrants who are trapped in southern Mexican prostitution rings. Many, like ‘Erika’, came to Mexico – on their way to the US – as children fleeing slavery, physical and sexual abuse, and systemic gang violence. According to The National Institute of Statistics and Geography, there are an estimated 20,000 boys and girls enslaved or being exploited by sex traffickers throughout Mexico.
Martínez, a consummate reporter, ensures that the voices of the customarily voiceless permeate as he tugs his invisible protagonists out of the shadows. Although much of the slang is lost in translation, the speech he relays is gritty and lively, and his descriptions are lyrically evocative ― ‘I don’t have a clue which sons-of-bitches are threatening us.’ He recounts how Jaime, a migrant who falls from La Bestia, ends up with a mutilated leg constituting ‘bone and ground skin and a barely attached, macerated, bluish hunk of foot,’ while in the Rio Grande dead bodies resemble ‘swollen white lumps’.
The winding journey reaches its conclusion in Ciudad Juárez on the border with the US, the world’s most violent city and ‘a cartel war zone’ where the Juárez and the Sinaloa Cartels vie for control of the border’s drug traffic. They are not gangs lurking surreptitiously on shady street corners but are streamlined and brutally efficient multinational organisations. Here the arbitrary and punitive nature of US immigration policy is again exposed. Every month around 6,000 Mexicans are deported by the El Paso customs office, and from the airport at El Paso in Texas, migrants are unloaded back across the Santa Fe Bridge.
‘[The migrants] emerge disoriented, with a plastic bag in hand that holds a copy of the papers ordering them out of the country. Some hardly speak Spanish and use Spanglish to ask how to reach their hometown, which they may hardly remember. Some have no family in Mexico at all. “Seventeen years over there,” says one young man, turning, stupefied, to look down Juárez Avenue.’
The Beast ultimately exposes the fallacies which underpin the script on trans-American migration. From narcos and coyotes, to corrupt and inept law enforcement agencies, migrants face violence and exploitation from multiple and overlapping spheres of power. The Central Americans with whom we are introduced are not so much migrants, but veritable refugees fleeing a war in which there are no delineated battle lines, because every city, every barrio and every community constitutes its own war zone. There are no victors here, only endless victims.
The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail
Óscar Martínez (Verso, 2013)
This article was originally published in Alborada magazine issue one (Spring/Summer 2015)