Last train to oblivion
Published in The Mail on Sunday (January 5th, 2014)
The Beast: Riding The Rails And Dodging Narcos On The Migrant Trail by Oscar Martinez (Verso)
The two young Hondurans wrapped in green blankets did not want to talk to the journalist. Having fled the world’s most violent nation, they had outwitted the bandits that kill and kidnap migrants in huge numbers as they cross Mexico, then evaded the drones, guards and sophisticated technology designed to stop them entering the world’s richest country. But at the final hurdle, they joined a highway slightly too soon and were picked up by United States border agents.
But many other migrants do talk in this remarkable book, and their stories of negotiating treacherous paths through the killing fields of Mexico in search of a better life are simply astonishing. Poor and desperate people from central America are human prey running a gauntlet of unbelievable depravity, feasted upon for few savings they have by greedy guides, deadly drug gangs and corrupt police officers.
About 12,000 people die each year making this long march – some in transit, some fleeing the gangsters. Many more are robbed, or kidnapped and held to ransom. These figures dwarf the numbers dying in those terrible migrant drownings in the Mediterranean.
In one incident alone, 300 people were held for ransom at a ranch; a local priest negotiated the release of 120 of them, many with ankles broken and backs badly beaten, but the rest were never seen again. Women are routinely raped, often many times; there are even trees in the desert festooned with their underwear, trophies left by gangsters who have raped them.
Snaking through both the nation and this narrative is The Beast, a freight train that carries more than a quarter of a million migrants a year towards ‘El Norte’. They cling to its roof knowing that one slip, or drifting into sleep exhausted by a murderous journey lasting several months, can lead to death or decapitation.
One man tells of seeing a woman’s head bounce from her body after she fell beneath the wheels; another of losing a leg as he headed north to earn money after his family farm was destroyed in a hurricane. Oscar Martinez, a courageous young journalist from El Salvador, rode this deadly train eight times in a two-year investigative trek along these terrifying migrant trails. His book is war reporting of the finest order.
He traipses down remote rural paths alongside fearful young men and women, visits hostels run by priests that offer respite from rapists and robbers, and rides in the cars of surprisingly-sympathetic US border guards trying to stop the flow of drugs and people into their wealthy country. His prose is all the more powerful for the simple way he tells his stories, free of embellishment or superfluous moralising.
Many migrants are fleeing gang violence, such as three young brothers he meets in a shelter in Oaxaca. Their mother was murdered, probably in reprisal for one of them witnessing the shooting of a friend, and they had been warned they would be next. They ride a bus together on a winding mountainous road to avoid checkpoints, then part with hugs. Later, there is a text saying they are bordering the train, then nothing; later still, Martinez learns there has been another mass kidnapping. At every step spies watch those moving through this hostile terrain, disguised as drink sellers or guides while feeding back information to drug barons.
‘A town has been taken over once half of it is on the payroll and the other half is scared,’ the author writes. The police are no help for illegal migrants as many have been bought up by the main cartel.
Should the migrants make the US border, they are funnelled by fences and tightening security into the most dangerous zones. To cross, they risk drowning in the Rio Grande, dying of thirst in the desert – or being picked up by the police. ‘Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,’ says one agent watching dots moving on his surveillance radar. ‘It’s how the game plays.’ But for the migrants, this is a game of life, death and gut-wrenching brutality.