Beast of No Nation

What follows is Francisco Goldman’s introduction to Oscar Martinez’s The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail, which was published in the USA by Verso in 2013. First thanks Verso for allowing us to reprint Goldman’s tribute to Martinez’s audacious and skillful reporting on “the terrifying lives of Central American migrants.”
ElFaro.net advertises itself as Latin America’s first online digital newspaper. It is based in El Salvador, and was founded in 1998. Many enterprises nowadays, individual and collective, proclaim themselves or would like to be considered “alternative,” and as part of a “vanguard” showing the way forward, but ElFaro.net truly is both. It certainly offers an alternative to the kinds of fare provided by El Salvador’s familiar newspapers—complicit with the political and moneyed establishment, and thoroughly mediocre at best, as is true of the establishment press and other media throughout Latin America. And ElFaro.net is a vanguard because it is so very excellent in every way that it has become a beacon of the possible, of the ambitious, of the truly revolutionary, to young journalists up and down the continent. To the question of how it can be that the Bloomsbury of Latin American journalists has sprung up in tiny El Salvador and not in Mexico City or Buenos Aires, one answer is, Why not? and another is, Actually, it makes perfect sense, and yet another is, Isn’t this just what the digital age promised? No more periphery, the center is everywhere. Except it takes a visionary editorial team, and exceptionally courageous and talented journalist-writers, to fulfill such an idealized and wishful supposition.

ElFaro.net was founded in 1999, six years after the end of El Salvador’s civil war, by two young Salvadorans who’d been raised abroad, the sons of political exiles. When they returned home to their war-devastated country, and found it still as violent or even more violent than before, saturated by organized crime and gangs, the infamously sadistic maras, terrorizing poor urban neighborhoods and towns, they decided that there really could be such a thing as cutting-edge journalism, and that it should and could make a difference. And what is cutting-edge journalism? It means writing about what nobody else dares to write about, at least not thoroughly or memorably, and getting as close to your subjects as you can, and taking as much time as you need, and then somehow knowing how to write the hell out of what you find—capturing mareros’s ways of speaking, their jargon and gestures, as if the writer himself has been a marero all his life, deciphering their codes, prising from them their life-stories, their secrets, their most scarifying and gruesome stories, their odd vulnerabilities, learning the layout and nuances of their places, and doing the same with their rivals, their victims, with the police and prosecutors who pursue them, and shaping that material into compelling narratives that engross the reader and deliver much larger and more unsettling meanings than those found in ordinary newspaper dispatches. I hadn’t read stories like those published in ElFaro.net anywhere else. Such high-quality and important work doesn’t go unnoticed, and the digital newspaper’s writers have gathered some of the world ’s most prestigious journalism awards: cofounder Carlos Dada, the current editor, won the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, and Carlos Martínez won the Ortega y Gasset Award.

Now Carlos’s brother, Óscar Martínez, has produced The Beast (originally Los migrantes que no importan, “the migrants who don’t matter”), about the Central American migrants who trek across Mexico to reach the northern border and the United States. With mind-boggling courage and commitment, Óscar Martínez went where no other journalist from Mexico or elsewhere had gone, exploring the migrants’ routes, in a series of trips, from bottom to top, that take in not only the infamous train known as “La Bestia”—he rode on that train eight times—but also the desolate byways traveled on foot where the very worst things happen. Despite being a compilation of dispatches published over two years in ElFaro.net, the book has the organic coherence, development, and narrative drive of a novel. It reads like a series of pilgrims’ tales about a journey through hell. (Even calling it hell feels like an understatement.)

The Beast is, along with Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, the most impressive nonfiction book I’ve read in years. I first read it in Spanish a couple of years ago after it was recommended to me by Alma Guillermoprieto, in an edition published in 2010 by Icaria, a small press in Barcelona. In Mexico and Latin America, the book might as well have not existed. How could it be that this book, which should be urgent reading for all Mexicans at all interested in what occurs in their country, was not immediately published in Mexico? Perhaps because it holds up a mirror to a Mexico almost too depraved, grotesque, and heartless to believe. In different ways it holds up just as painful a mirror to the United States, and another to Central America. Finally The Beast was rescued and published, in late 2012, by the Oaxaca-based Sur + Ediciones, one of a handful of excellent small presses in Mexico that have reinvigorated the country’s literary landscape. Thanks to their initiative the book was discovered by Verso, which has brought out the present edition in English.

Over the last few months, I’ve had many conversations with people who’ve read the book, which I urge upon everybody I meet. They always speak, of course, about the importance of what it conveys, and in awed tones about its author’s courage. And then they always add, “But how come that cabrón writes so well!” Though only in his mid-twenties when he wrote the book, Óscar Martínez writes really, really well, with liveliness, precision, vividly observed detail, with a restraint which it must have been terribly difficult to sustain considering the rage he often felt over what he was witnessing, with astonishing and never superfluous poetry and, most of all, with a genius for conveying human character. Martínez’s literary gift is what lifts The Beast into a work that delivers much more than journalistic information—though its information is of pressing and illuminating importance—and makes it a masterpiece. Each chapter narrates a unique story. At times the book reminded me of Isaac Babel’s Red Army Tales.

“‘I’m running,” Auner says, his head ducked down, not meeting my eyes, ‘so I don’t get killed.’”

So begins the first pilgrim’s tale, in a migrant shelter in south- ern Oaxaca where Martínez meets Auner and his two Salvadoran brothers, embarking on the journey north without any set plan, without knowledge of its dangers, traps, and rules. Yet it ’s all- important to know what you’re doing on this journey, the book will teach us, again and again: it should be required reading for any migrant setting out across Mexico. Along the way only these widely scattered migrants’ shelters, most run by the Catholic Church, offer some respite from the hardship and unyielding fear of the journey, though not entirely—because the shelters are also infiltrated by spies working for the Zetas cartel and other criminal groups, or corrupt coyotes who prey on the migrants.

The first time I asked him, though, he told me he was migrating to try his luck. He said he was only looking for a better life, una vida mejor, which is a common saying on the migrant trails. But here in southern Mexico, now that Auner and I are alone, with the train tracks next to us and a cigarette resting between his lips, now that we ’re apart from his two younger brothers who are playing cards in the migrant shelter’s common room, he admits that the better word to describe his journey is not migration, but escape. “And will you come back?” I ask him. “No,” he says, still looking at the ground. “Never.” “So you’re giving up your country?” “Yeah.”

The brothers’ lives have been threatened, but they don’t know by whom. At home their mother was killed by gang assassins, perhaps in reprisal for one of the brothers having witnessed and denounced the murder by drunks of a friend who was a gang member, or perhaps it was because their mother witnessed a gang assassination outside her little store. “Death isn’t simple in El Salvador,” Martínez writes. “It’s like a sea: you’re subject to its depths, its creatures, its darkness. Was it the cold that did it, the waves, a shark? A drunk, a gangster, a witch?” Many migrants head north to flee the economic devastation of their countries, the paucity of decent work or pay, in search of “a better life” in the United States: good wages, the chance to send money back to their families, to save enough to build a home or start a small business when they return. But Óscar Martínez also introduces us to many people who are fleeing out of fear. A young gang member running for his life because the rival gang has conquered his gang’s turf and had he stayed, his death at their hands would have been assured. A policewoman fleeing because her two successive police husbands had been murdered, and, while she was in mortal danger too, she feared even more being no longer able to endure her dread and despair and turning her own pistol on herself and her baby daughter. Orphaned girls in their early teens, fleeing homes where stepparents, stepbrothers or other informal guardians regularly rape them or violently enslave them.

All are in flight from fear, only to exchange it for the differ- ent, unrelenting fear they will discover and learn to endure on the journeys north, with little chance, increasingly little chance, we learn in The Beast, of ever actually reaching the United States. Along the way they will be preyed upon by cartels, police, Mexican immigration authorities, maras and random rural gangs, robbed, enslaved, forced into narco assassin squads, and raped—an estimated eight out of ten migrant women who attempt to cross Mexico suffer sexual abuse along the way, sometimes at the hands of fellow migrants. Migrants are kidnapped en masse by Zetas, with the complicity of corrupted and terrorized local police and other authorities and of treacherous coyotes, so that their families back home or awaiting them in the US can be extorted; meanwhile the captives are tortured, raped and sometimes massacred. Thousands upon thousands of migrants have been murdered in Mexico, and many others die by falling from “La Bestia”; as many as seventy thousand, some experts estimate, lie buried along the “death corridor” of the migrants’ trail. If the travelers do reach the northern border and actually manage to cross into the United States, they most likely will be captured by the US Border Patrol, and be deported or jailed.

Martínez journeys north with the three brothers, Auner, El Chele and Pitbull, on a bus from Ixcuintepec to Oaxaca via a mountain road where there are few Migration Authority check-points, because it is so winding and treacherous. How finely and intimately Martínez captures the quiet tension of that ride, the young men’s nerves, their quality of strangers-in-a-strange-land:

El Chele and Auner are sleeping in successive rows behind him. They decided to spread themselves out, in case a cop came looking for undocumented migrants. But they still stick out enough to almost glow: three young men with loose pants and tennis shoes on a bus entirely full of indigenous folks. And they’re not just migrating, remember, they’re fleeing. You can tell. They’re the ones with the light sleep. The ones who peek out the windows when the bus comes to a stop. It doesn’t matter if the bus stops for someone to pee, or to pick up passengers, the boys get nervous every time.

In Oaxaca, they part ways; the brothers travel on, first by bus. They keep in touch, texting by cell phone. Martínez names seven other young migrants he ’s met who, during those months of August and September, are killed on the journey. And then comes a final text: “On the move. About to board the train.” After that the communication goes dead, the brothers no longer answer messages. Martínez learns that there has been a mass kidnapping in Reynosa, thirty-five migrants seized from the train.

“Where are you? How are you? Nothing. No response.” End of chapter.

La Arrocera is what the migrants call the 262-kilometer route through southern Chiapas, from Tapachula to Arriaga, where they climb onto the trains. They avoid the highways and roads because of checkpoints variously manned by the Migration Authority, police and army—“In Chiapas most denunciations filed by migrants are against the police,” writes Martínez—and instead hike through mountains, jungles and ranchlands. Migrants consider the route “lawless territory,” the most dangerous of the entire trek across Mexico, and it is called La Arrocera only because in a small settlement along the way, there is an abandoned rice warehouse. “En route to El Norte I saw, and began to understand, that the bodies left here are innumerable, and that rape is only one of the countless threats a migrant confronts.” Along the paths there are skeletons, the machete-split skulls of migrants. “Bones here aren’t a metaphor for what’s past, but for what’s coming.” There are peasant ranchers who pretend to tell the migrants which path to take, instead directing them to where rural gangs—some informal, armed with machetes, others more organized, armed with high-caliber rifles—await to assault them.

Apparently this remote countryside wasn’t always populated by murderers, robbers and rapists. What happened was that when the Mexicans living there noticed the migrants crossing their lands, so vulnerable, so frightened of ever denouncing any crime committed against them for fear of being deported, so determined only to reach their destination, their predatory instincts were awakened, and they adapted to what this new situation offered. The Beast offers a terrifying lesson in human cruelty, cowardice, greed and depravity. Likewise, the Zetas had never before included mass kidnappings in their criminal repertoire, but when they noticed the migrants traveling through their territories they seized upon what they perceived as a new business opportunity, forcing coyotes to work for them, and police and state authorities into complicity. When one badly beaten migrant managed to escape the house in a small town where he was being held along with dozens of other migrants, and went to the police to make a report, the police returned him to the kidnappers. Martínez and his photographer travel the La Arrocera route:

We walk on, telling ourselves that if we get attacked, we get attacked. There ’s nothing we can do. The suffering that migrants endure on the trail doesn’t heal quickly. Migrants don’t just die, they’re not just maimed or shot or hacked to death. The scars of their journey don’t only mark their bodies, they run deeper than that. Living in such fear leaves something inside them, a trace and a swelling that grabs hold of their thoughts and cycles through their heads over and over. It takes at least a month of travel to reach Mexico’s northern border … Few think about the trauma endured by the thousands of Central American women that have been raped here. Who takes care of them? Who works to heal their wounds?

An expert on the migrants tells Martínez:

The biggest problem isn’t in what we can see, it’s beyond that. The problem lies in a particular understanding of things, in an entire system of logic. Migrants who are women have to play a certain role in front of their attackers, in front of the coyote and even in front of their own group of migrants, and during the whole journey they’re under the pressure of assuming this role: I know it’s going to happen to me, but I can’t help but hope that it doesn’t.

There’s an expression among the women migrants: “cuerpomátic. The body becomes a credit card, a new platinum-edition ‘bodymatic’ which buys you a little safety, a little bit of cash and the assurance that your travel buddies won’t get killed. Your bodymatic, except for what you get charged, buys a more comfortable ride on the train.” A migrant named Saúl tells Martínez atop “La Bestia” about a scene that’s permanently branded on his mind, when an eighteen-year-old Honduran girl he was traveling with fell from the train:

“I saw her,” he remembers, “just as she was going down, with her eyes open so wide.” And then he was able to hear one last scream, quickly stifled by the impact of her body hitting the ground. In the distance, he saw something roll. “Like a ball with hair. Her head, I guess.”

Throughout Central America and Mexico, as in the neighborhoods populated in the United States by migrants who manage to reach it, after years of widespread and untreated, silently endured trauma, there must be entire communities that could be converted into mental health clinics, or even asylums.

The migrants are not just pushovers and victims. Martínez shows how rugged and capable they often are—these working men, stone masons, construction workers, mechanics, peasant farmers—and how bravely they often fight back, protecting their companions and their women from being forced off the train and herded into the forest. “This is the law of The Beast that Saúl knows so well. There are only three options: give up, kill, or die.” On one of his rides atop the train, Martínez witnesses and grippingly describes a series of battles between the migrants and their attackers, who pursue them in white pick-up trucks. He notes in conclusion: “After the attack on the train, where there were more than a hundred armed assaults, at least three murders, three injuries, and three kidnappings, there was not a single mention of the incident in the press. Neither the police nor the army showed up,and nobody filed a single report.”

Out of indifference, moral mediocrity and fear, the Central American migrants’ plight has gone mostly unnoticed in Mexico and the United States. Now and then an especially large massacre, like that of seventy-three migrants in Tamaulipas in 2011, brings some media focus, but it passes all too quickly. Catholic Church leaders such as the priest Alejandro Solalinde in Oaxaca have been at the forefront of efforts to force Mexican authorities to provide better protection for migrants. Of the many silences that overlay this story, one of the most profound is that of the United States, where the tragedy of the migrants is what news editors call a “non-story,” one to which Washington could not be more indifferent. Throughout the 1970s and 80s the United States fanned the civil wars of Central America, supporting repressive governments, devastating those countries, and helping to create cultures of violence, all in the name of defeating communism—with a promise to nurture just, democratic societies once peace was attained. There was no nurturing, no rebuilding, and even after the wars were over, there was no peace. The United States mostly turned its back, and now it spurns the offspring who flee what it created in Central America.

Óscar Martínez travels the length of the now nearly impregnable northern border, which has become a walled war zone where the US carries out a nightly battle against the Mexican cartels that use ever more ingenious methods to deliver their drugs across it. Here the cartels consider the migrants a nuisance, forcing them to search for ever more remote and dangerous slivers of land where they might be able to pass. Here too, they face kidnappings, assaults, betrayals and rapes. In the book’s final chapter, set in Nuevo Laredo, Martínez follows a Honduran migrant named Julio César. It is nearly impossible to cross in Nuevo Laredo, where the strong currents of the Río Bravo regularly drown the desperate migrants who try to swim it. But Julio César studies the river with the meticulous patience of a frontier tracker, walking far outside the city until he discovers a remote spot where the waters are shallower and an island divides and weakens the current. He will wait several months, until April, in the dry season, when the river will be even lower, to attempt his crossing. Julio César incarnates many of the book’s lessons: patience, courage, attentiveness, getting as close to the subject of concern as one can, “the difference between knowing and not knowing.” Those are the book’s closing words. In some ways they encapsulate the methods Óscar Martínez followed in his own crossing over into the hidden and terrifying lives of the Central American migrants.

From January, 2014

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