Cormac McCarthy used to live in El Paso, just over the border from Cuidad Juarez, Mexico. I kept thinking about this as I read Oscar Martinez’s book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail (Verso) because the parallels between Martinez’s non-fiction work and McCarthy’s novel The Road were sometimes striking and horrifying. Martinez is a journalist from El Salvador who has taken the courageous step of following the migrant trail that Central Americans would-be migrants to the US take through Mexico. “The Beast” of the (English) title is a reference to the trains that so many of them cling to through days and nights. Each chapter tells a different aspect of the story, from what makes people flee their homes in El Salavador, Guatemala or Honduras to the risky business of how to swim the Rio Grande at the end. Each chapter is different, yet each has the same essential theme: poor and desperate people who are the prey of criminal organizations in Mexico – the drug cartels – with police, the “polleros” and “coyotes” (migrant guides) and others being induced by a mixture of greed and fear (mainly the latter) to act as agents for the cartels (such as the Zetas) or at least to pay the tax they demand.
If you are a woman who undertakes the journey, you will almost certainly be raped, perhaps many times. Maybe this will happen when your are misdirected into an ambush in La Arrocera (near the beginning of the trail), perhaps it will happen on the train, perhaps it will happen when you are kidnapped and held on a ranch with hundreds of others whilst your relatives wire a ransom to the gangs, perhaps near the US border where a “bra tree” displays the underwear of victims as the rapists’ trophies. The stories of mass kidnapping and the warehousing of migrants by the gangs, with torture a regular part of the plan and summary death (in front of the others) for escapees are chilling.
The train itself is a frightening thing, with danger coming both from other people and from wheel and rail. Martinez talks us through a sequence of attacks on the train, with gangs in cahoots with the driver to stop or slow at convenient locations, with gang members disguised as migrants and with migrants prepared to defend themselves (and women as one of the reasons for attack). To ride the train you will need to cling to it for hours or even days and if sleep catches you, even for a moment you can fall, be crushed, decapitated, lose a limb.
When you get to the end of the trail, the US border, you have to face the problem of getting across. Since the nineties, but particularly since 9/11, US border security has tightened. If you are headed for Los Angeles (where many migrants have family) then the obvious place might seem to be Tijuana. No chance. So you are pushed eastwards, maybe as far east as Cuidad Juarez, until recently the most dangerous city in the world. Your problem is that the few places you might cross are the same few places that the drug mules can get across: everybody is funnelled into the same dangerous spaces, towards the Arizona desert where you can perish in the heat or the Rio Grande which may well drown you. And all the time: extortion and exploitation. You have to pay and pay and you may not get what you pay for: the coyote may load you into a trunk and release you on a beach in Mexico telling you are in the US or you may be part of a mass crossing that is staged as a diversion so the Narcos can get their drugs across in the next sector. You get picked up, they get through.
It is hard not to be in awe of what Martinez has done to write this book. Not only has he shared the physical risks that the migrants undertake, but the close presence of the cartels and their minions permeates the book. They were watching him and his photographer, and he knew it: this is reportage from a war zone. Martinez is careful to be dispassionate and objective: he lets the facts (and the migrants, polleros, US Border Agents etc) speak for themselves. Things are so bad that a moralistic gloss would be superfluous. He doesn’t draw any policy conclusions. But that is not a reason for the reader not to do so. These rapes, murders, limb-severings, drownings etc result from the system of closed borders, from the US demand for drugs and from the fact that many people need to flee dangerous environments (look up the murder rates in Central America) that are in part the result of US policy (the wars of the 80s, drug policy since). Many of those fleeing are not technically refugees: the first three characters in the book are three brothers, petty criminals, whose family are being systematically murdered by a gang and who know that they will be next. The US has in large measure caused their plight, and now claims the moral right to exclude them (and to deport long-standing migrants to dangerous environments), it is hard to see that it has such a right.
Though Martinez’s take is set in Mexico, it wouldn’t be hard to tell a similar story about migrants to Europe through Libya or to Australia through Thailand. Only yesterday there was news that the Lampedusa victims had been subjected to rape and torture in Libya. The system of closed borders exposes the desperate and vulnerable to predators on the road: it is a system that the democratic publics of the West have willed.