If you want to know what hell feels like, try holding onto the outside of a train moving at thirty miles per hour in icy weather for eight hours, knowing that if you fall you’ll be sucked under the train and you’ll lose either your legs or your head.
Even if you make it, chances are the gangs will send someone to rob you. Or kidnap you. Yes, hell has many rooms. Rape, theft, murder, torture, imprisonment. If you’re an undocumented Central American immigrant trying to get to the U.S.A via Mexico, these are your hurdles, and rare is the traveler who gets over them unscathed.
The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail (Verso, 2014) is about as harrowing as books come. A work of stupendously intrepid journalism, it describes the journey to “freedom” from the viewpoint of the migrants – Nicaraguan farmers, Honduran factory workers, Guatemalan peasants. Their hard-acquired wisdom and terrifying escapades are given shape by Oscar Martínez, a Salvadoran journalist in his twenties, who goes along for the ride.
Every chapter follows a different group of migrants and every chapter shows us the breakdown of systems set up to protect people. Kidnap victims escape, go to the police, and are promptly sent back to the kidnappers. Military squads march on by as scores of migrants are robbed at gunpoint. Just as bad is the labyrinth of lies built by the Mexican government and its agencies. They deny the problems or turn a blind eye.
Horror piles upon horror as Martínez details the violence and depravity in Mexico’s badlands. Something has gone very wrong with humanity when bandits prey on the desperate, robbing, raping and kidnapping.
Why do the migrants keep coming when faced with these perils? Because they have no choice. Not one of these travelers is untouched by tragedy. Some have witnessed family members murdered by gangs, others been sexually abused, others seen a price on their heads. So they flee their homelands. Even the jaws of the Beast – the lethal train that traverses Mexico towards el norte – are preferable to the hellish lives they leave behind.
As a piece of reportage, The Beast is exceptional. But it’s more than that. The prose reads like the best war novels: vivid and perfectly understated (who needs literary fireworks when you have this story to tell?). While kudos goes to the translators, Daniela Maria Ugaz and John Washington, I’m reminded of a Teddy Roosevelt quote: “The credit goes to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”
Oscar Martínez will never write a greater book. And those of us interested in border issues and social justice may never read one.