Death on Two Rails

Salvadoran journalist rides the deadly migrant trail

Twenty-seven years ago, Ted Conover wrote a landmark book called Coyotes. In it, Conover chronicled the hard-bitten lives of people struggling to cross the border from Mexico. Hungry for work in the fields, these desperate souls had little choice but to put themselves at the untender mercies of coyotes, outlaw entrepreneurs who ferried others across a then-porous border. Upon publication, Coyotes was nothing less than a savage journey into the heart of illegal immigration.

However, Conover's book is now a quaint anecdote compared to the unimaginable horror today's migrants face in an era of increased post-Sept. 11 anti-terror border vigilance and drug-running sociopaths. Well, at least judging from investigative journalist Óscar Martinez's account of having barely survived two years on the narrowing migrant paths stretching from El Salvador to the U.S. border.

The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail is exactly what its title suggests, namely a harrowing nonfiction thriller in which people come briefly into focus, only to be lost amidst swirling, deepening violence. And if you're a girl or woman, God help you—you run the very serious risk of being raped, tortured and murdered, your dead body left to decompose in the desertscape, another unreported casualty of a brutal, ongoing mass exodus.

Through it all, Martinez's prose (translated by John Washington and Daniela Maria Ugaz) sings with dark, disturbing, noir-ish urgency. His interviews made my jaw drop—for instance, a conversation with a transsexual Guatemalan named Paola, who relates being set upon by men with machetes in La Arrocera, in the region of Sinaloa. Paola announces to them her (false) AIDS diagnosis, urging them to use the condoms in her backpack, a plot that saves her from gang-rape or worse.

Indeed, Martinez sums up the ceaseless nightmare of that part of Mexico.

The place is stained red by the blood of migrants, some say. The place makes you whimper like a dog, others say. But most people just keep silent, only speak to define the place, simply, by name—La Arrocera. [...] Paola saw firsthand that something bad happens to nearly every migrant here. La Arrocera is lawless territory. The 45 others she traveled with to Ixtepec were all assaulted. Paola, like many migrants, intimately knows the danger of this place. The authorities know it too.

Freight-hopping is mandatory and insanely dangerous for undocumented Central Americans. A traveler named Wilber shares with the author an unsettling train-yard scene in the chapter called "La Bestia: Oaxaca and Veracruz":

"I saw this one guy," Wilber remembers [...] "who got his leg chopped off by a wheel. The guy just couldn't lift himself up once he was already running. And since the train was going so slowly, he had enough time to see his chopped leg, think about it, and then put his head under the next wheel. You know," Wilber says, "if he was heading north because he couldn't get work down south, what could he possibly find with only one leg?"

Mutilated migrants arriving in the U.S. are common, the psychological strain of the journey severe. Kidnapping and ransoming are booming, draining the finances of already-impoverished families. And with the cartels grabbing a larger piece of the illegal-immigration action, things are growing worse. The Zetas are amok and have infiltrated, according to Martinez, every institution in Central America—law enforcement, military, prisons. This has, in turn, hardened the coyotes, making the men depicted in Conover's book seem like do-gooders by comparison.

Ten years ago, the image of the coyote-as-custodian started crumbling. The friendly neighbor who, for a small, reasonable sum, would take his compadre, his friend, to El Norte, is now a sullent man, covered in scars, and often a danger to his own clients. Sometimes he's even a Zeta ally, who one has to go with because there's no other choice. Sometimes he's a kidnapper, and most of the time he's a swindler. The new breed of coyotes lives on the road. And the road, malicious and deceitful as it is, has turned against them as much as they've turned against the road.

And as the wire fences along the Tijuana-San Diego corridor of '80s were replaced by steel and concrete walls in the '90s, "funneling" inevitably occurred, bringing drug-runners and migrants into contact. President Bush's Operation Jump Start, signed in 2007, added thousands more Border Patrol agents, putting migrants directly in the hands of the cartels. A sad story that will only get sadder.

Anyone interested in border issues should study this book. Tucsonans will be well served by the chapter "Cat and Mouse with Border Patrol: Arizona," which follows a Tucson-based agent on a typical shift. The Beast is an ugly yet necessary read.

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