The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail
This is the third of three reviews I needed to publish before the English material can roll. And now, Rule Britannia!
The news cycle of late spring 2018 was marked, in the United States, by constant discussion of The Migrant Caravan, which judging by the nightly news consisted of an invading column of Central Americans intent on shoving their way into the United States, toppling fences and frustrating policy through sheer bulk of numbers. They were fleeing the violence of their homes, the newscasters explained, and joining together for safety in numbers. Not until reading The Beast did I appreciate the motives driving such clumping together. Although ‘la bestia’ refers to the trains that migrants often ride atop of on their northward journey, after reading Oscar Martinez’ book one might as well regard the beast as human nature itself. This is a story of constant cruelty, treachery, and violence, filled with such human misery that I paused my reading of it for a few weeks to avoid.
Although Martinez’ stories range all over Mexico and Central America — in crowded cities, open plazas, hidden trails in densely wooded hills, through fields and factories — the reader is never far from the drug trade. The narcos’ hold on not just cities but whole areas of the region is pervasive and inescapable. The strongest of the cartels are not merely interested in monopolizing the trade of drugs in their area; they dominate the entire spectrum of criminal activity, from theft and prostitution to off-the-books cabs, and demand ‘taxes’ from much of the population. The penalty for defying the cartels are as you might expect: beatings, torture, and death. Little wonder people flee their realm.
Those who journey northward, however, exchange one trouble for a sea of others. Migrants can be expected to be kidnapped (used as ransom or slave labor), raped, and robbed of virtually everything. There is no relief from the authorities, as even those who are not directly in the pocket of one cartel or another are corrupt in their own rights, happy to use their power to get a little something for themselves – whether that be a few hundred pesos or use of a woman for a few minutes. There are many who try to genuinely help migrants, offering them food and advice on the least dangerous routes — but there are also those who are thieves in Samaritan’s clothing, who offer to guide migrants to safety but instead deliver them into the hands of narcos – for use as slave labor, ransom,etc. The trains, which are inherently dangerous to access – frequently destroying life and limb of those who jump aboard and misjudge their leaps — are also attacked by narcos, their passengers shaken down or kidnapped. As the ‘war on terror’ and the drug war continue to tighten US border security, more and more migrants are funneled into fewer paths – and all those paths are controlled by the cartels.
The Beast makes for harrowing reading. Those of us in the United States need to know what’s happening south of us, so that our response – be it humanitarian or security-minded — is at least informed by something other than the borderline hysteria ginned up by the media. Martinez’ A History of Violence focuses on the violence itself being fled, but the abuse visited on migrants at their every step, only occasionally tempered by charitable people and individuals, suggests that we should at the very least not treat them worse than those they flee.