Paperless Pilgrims

This review first appeared in Arena magazine, Number 150, 2017. It appears here in a slightly altered form.

Oscar Martinez’s The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail is an important book for anyone who wants to know why people are forced to flee their home for life in another country.  It is the first English translation of Los migrantes que no importan, or, ‘the migrants who do not matter’.  The Spanish edition was published in 2010; the English in 2013. 

Enthralling and humane, The Beast is a work of great daring.  It contains, however, stories that are quite horrific.  One of these is the story of Erika.  When she was a girl Erika was treated like a slave and sent out into the streets of Honduras to sell fish and firewood.  If she didn’t get rid of everything her adoptive mother would whip her with an electrical cord.  Beaten so badly, Erika had open sores all over her back.  Salt was used to cover the sores and Erika’s twin brother was made to lick it off.  The brother became sick and died.  Erika was told it was parasites, but she knew the punishments were the cause.

When Erika herself fell sick she was taken to the hospital, but no one came back to pick her up.  So thereafter she lived on the streets.  One day several years later she happened to run into her adoptive mother, who convinced Erika to come back with her.  But nothing would change.  Soon her step-brother was raping her.

Óscar Martínez, The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail, translated by Daniela Maria Ugaz and John Washington (Verso Books, 2013)

No wonder that at fourteen Erika left Honduras for a better life.  Like many other Central American migrants she would try to get to El Norte, the United States.  But once she was over the border and in Mexico she had endured enough.  And she needed money.  Migrants don’t get anywhere without money.  They have to pay Mexico’s borderland gangs and they have to pay the polleros (or people smugglers, who themselves are subject to gang-rule).  So, needing money, Erika spent her nights dancing and working clients in a strip club.

‘Erika paints a typical portrait of the Central American migrants whose suffering lights up the nights of border towns,’ writes Oscar Martinez in his powerful book.  Erika (not her real name) is one of the women who, without citizenship papers or other such forms of identification like a Birth Certificate, live and work in southern Mexico’s brothels, and whose story is recorded with great humanity by Martinez in The Beast

Since 2007, when a law was passed in Mexico against human trafficking, the plight of women and prostitution has been a much publicised issue.  Martinez, a journalist who has written for Latin America’s online digital newspaper elfaro.net, travelled Mexico’s borderlands to see for himself what was happening to people, particularly young women like Erika, who were poor, sexually enslaved, beaten, and whose bodies were ‘little more than a ticket from one hell to another hell.’  A woman migrant’s body is known colloquially as cuerpomatic, an idiomatic expression that means the body becomes a credit card which, as a community worker tells Martinez, ‘buys you a little safety, a little bit of cash and the assurance that your travel buddies won’t get killed. … It buys a more comfortable ride on the train.’  Between 2008 and 2010 Martinez documented the heartbreaking experiences of migrants (Hondurans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans) who were trying to flee to the freight trains that would take them north to the United States.  The trains are known collectively as Le Bestia, or The Beast.  Martinez encountered not only migrants, but also polleros, migration agents, police, journalists, and priests who run migrant shelters. 

In The Beast Martinez concisely documents the very well-organised criminal networks of gangs, or cartels, and their operations that involve everything from kidnapping to extortion.  For cartels like the notorious Los Zetas — who own, run and administer whole towns and regions, influence local police, and have the migration agency turning a blind eye — migrants are third in line after the other businesses of drugs and arms trafficking.  Martinez describes Los Zetas as a ‘metastasizing cancer.’  As he explains, ‘Migrants are recruited.  Soldiers are recruited.  Policemen, mayors, businessmen — they’re all liable to become part of the web.’  In this enlightening book Martinez vividly depicts the hopelessness of what he sees, and shows that a sense of fatalism pervades everything.  This is a deterministic world.  People’s wills are not their own, their fates decided by cartels; for only cartels possess a will and the right to use it.

So where is the hope?  For the migrants it is of course in the chance of getting to the US.  But for the reader it’s in the writing.  Martinez’s writing has great purpose.  He sees it as ‘an ethical responsibility’.  Bringing the facts, he also writes a heart-breaking story of struggle, sorrow, brutality and suffering amongst the people who are marked by the magnetic pull of the United States.  But he doesn’t dwell on violence for its own sake and isn’t gratuitous in his telling of it.  And he’s not out to make the reader feel depressed.  He understands that the evidence will speak for itself.  Above all, Martinez writes to inform and dispel ignorance.  He wants the voices of people like Erika to be heard within the context of what they have to deal with.  Yet at the same time he keeps the narrative moving swiftly and episodically through those borderlands and beyond.   

What also makes The Beast so astonishing and so eloquent is the way Martinez is alive to language (his own and that of others).  He’s alert, for example, to the ‘subtle wordings’ used by traffickers and pimps which make ‘trafficking not sound exactly like trafficking; the suggestion that it’s the girls’ decision.’  Also, Martinez employs simile and metaphor very sparingly, but when he does they leap off the page: ‘In Indeco walking the streets is like stepping on a spinal cord, a touchy boundary line between two countries in conflict’; ‘The Beast is the Rio Grande’s first cousin.  They both flow with the same Central American blood’; ‘bones aren’t a metaphor for what’s past, but for what’s coming’; ‘a migrant passing through Mexico is like a wounded cat slinking through a dog kennel.’  Moreover, his style eloquently captures the everyday while hinting at the epic:

The highway snakes through the rocky hills in this vast, open desert.  Only the Gran Desierto of Sonora and Arizona is as large.  The hills here reach as high as 6,500 feet above sea level.  And the huge cold rocks that cover them resemble Olmec heads, as though fallen in some long-past Biblical rain.  These hills form into chains that stretch beyond the horizon.  In the middle of this desolate landscape lies the small truck-stop town, La Rumorosa.  It’s a town of little more than gas stations, twenty-four-hour restaurants, small cafes, and vacant lots where long-haul truckers like to pull off the road and doze.

From the vastness of desert to mythical and religious analogy the narrative sweeps down to the roads of a desolate town and ends with truckers dozing in their cabins.  This passage is typical of the way Martinez concisely and evocatively introduces his scenes.  It also shows how landscape becomes an important part of the migrants’ stories.  Climbing up a steep pass Martinez looks out across the land:

Rock after rock.  Hill after hill these men and women have to cross.  And then they have to navigate the dangers of getting caught along the distant highway.  This is the first clear crossing point we’ve come upon, and we realize that it’s just as dangerous for migrants as crossing through a narco zone.  It’s not a human hand here that kills the migrants, but the system that pushes them to walk this far.

Then there is La Arrocera, in southern Mexico — a remote area dense with overgrowth and vegetation that Central American migrants must pass through if they want to get to the train at Arriaga.  But travelling through La Arrocera means going unprotected.  So vast is the region that police cannot cover it, and bandits are better equipped (or armed) than cops.  This is the brutal reality of the land.  Martinez is an explorer of this reality, and because human realities are based on systems of value, The Beast is also an enquiry into such systems and the cartels who enforce them.

The accumulative power of the migrants’ stories and the episodes of Martinez’s journey through Mexico impel the reader on.  The Beast is in fact a compilation of chronicles or ‘Crónicas,’ artfully structured so that the book has thematic continuity.  Crónicas bring the news, report events and issues.  But they’re usually a long-form genre of writing that also offers analysis and interpretation, as well as the journalist’s perspective on his or her experiences ‘in the field’.  The journalist is part of the story in a chronicle.  The New Journalism of the 1960s in the US is something similar in intent to crónicas.  But Martinez’s book may be closer to Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry (1926) than to New Journalism.  Like Babel, Martinez’s interest lies in the humanity which is buried in a world of dire circumstance.  Babel set out to tell a story of circumstance and what it was like to be trapped within it when he wrote of the experiences of a Jewish news correspondent who joins the Red Cossacks and reports on frontline action during the Soviet-Polish War.  Similarly, Martinez aims to chronicle the horrors of his time and place: extreme violence and a cruel indifference to the value of human life.  And though his commitment as a writer is to fact and event, the intensity of Martinez’s involvement never fails to come through.

The ingenuity of the book is that Martinez is learning for himself the extent of ruin and systematic, well-organised depravity.  Such is the law of much of Mexico’s borderlands, where evidently the only people immune to narcos are not polleros, justice officials, police, migrants, migration agents — not even military personnel — but priests.  In a world where ‘gangs consider migrants as part of their long-term business plan,’ priests, we learn, do not have to pay a ‘tax’ to the cartels.  It’s not that priests are sacred. They’re just a mere exemption and have to pay their dues the old-fashioned way — to God.

ash heddle