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.
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