The Beast, by Oscar Martinez

The Beast

In Francisco Goldman’s Forward to Oscar Martinez’s The Beast, he wonders how what he regards as such an extraordinary work of journalism set largely in Mexico remains all but unknown in that country. “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.” Though as an American I am most attuned to how it exposes the cruelty of the United States, The Beast is indeed an equal opportunity condemnation, with people of various nationalities, ideologies, and socioeconomic levels behaving in atrocious ways. This is not a book likely to bolster your faith in the inherent goodness of humanity. (Though there’s some mitigation here and there to go with the not-quite-relentless “depravity, grotesqueness, and heartlessness”—more on this below.)

The subject matter of the book is the illegal immigration to the United States by Central Americans. “The Beast” is the nickname for a train that runs through Mexico that many migrants ride to get closer to the U.S. border—illegally, in hobo fashion, most often on top, hanging on as best they can.

Though plenty of Mexicans cross the border illegally, The Beast focuses almost exclusively on migrants passing through Mexico from countries farther south in Central America, especially El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

There are statistics and other facts to provide context, but really the book consists of a series of stories of the personal experiences of migrants. Martinez wasn’t told these stories after the fact; he was there in person to report on them, accompanying the migrants on their harrowing journey. For all intents and purposes this is participatory journalism.

There are many impressive things about this book, but one of them is the sheer physical courage of the author in spending years traversing Mexico with various migrants, repeatedly putting himself at the same kind of risk that they do.

Once you gain some understanding of what it takes to cross Mexico and enter the United States successfully, you realize the extreme desperation of the migrants, for surely if you had any even barely tolerable alternative you wouldn’t put yourself through this, unless you were a moron (or a dedicated journalist or writer wanting to educate yourself about the journey so as to be able to educate others).

The Mexican government is sometimes aggressively punitive toward the migrants, sometimes indifferent, and only very rarely provides even minimal protection or support for them. Even if it wanted to safeguard the most basic of human rights of the migrants it’s doubtful it could do all that much. At least as Martinez depicts the situation, much of Mexico is in a state of anarchy and chaos, with drug gangs exercising more authority than the government (where anyone is exercising much authority).

In those areas—which apparently constitute a large portion of the country that the migrants must pass through—what police there are tend to be either too intimidated to venture far from their stations, blatantly in cahoots with the drug gangs, or paralyzed by not knowing who within their ranks is an infiltrator from the drug gangs.

In such circumstances, migrants have no one to turn to if they are victimized. There is no responsible authority from whom they can seek justice.

So at any given time there are thousands of utterly vulnerable migrants passing through Mexico, or at least trying to, and in response thousands of people have developed a specialty in exploiting that vulnerability.

The perpetrators include the drug gangs, other outlaw gangs of bandits, and just freelance brutes and con artists. Migrants must run this horrific gauntlet, trying to avoid these savage entities, while also needing to dodge the Mexican government officials at the various checkpoints and such who will apprehend them and dump them back over the border into their Central American country of origin if they can catch them.

Migrants are routinely robbed, raped, and otherwise abused, up to and including being murdered. And I mean “routinely” literally. For example, while estimates of necessity must be very approximate given that we’re talking about things that are almost never reported and that often happen out in the middle of nowhere witnessed by no one beyond the perpetrator and victim, researchers consistently conclude that the majority of women migrants (and teenage and adolescent girls for that matter) can expect to be raped at least once on the journey, with high end estimates making it highly probable. That’s just something that “goes with the territory” nowadays.

The mind boggles trying to imagine a life so bad that you’d endure even those odds in order to run away from it. But that’s the reality of many people’s lives in Central America, and around the world for that matter.

In getting to know the migrants, Martinez discovers that many of them aren’t just fleeing a bad life or a life of poverty—though typically they are indeed dirt poor with little prospect for advancement if they stay where they are—but specifically a life of sexual assault. While almost all migrants will initially cite their desire for a “better life” in terms of economic opportunity as an explanation for their seeking to enter the United States, when Martinez digs for more specifics it’s striking how often the females were treated like sex toys by the men in their lives back home.

In societies that have descended into a kind of brutality where external restraints on sexual abuse have weakened, it’s amazing how many men turn out to have little in the way of internal restraints, helping themselves sexually to the women and often children in their household. It’s stepfathers and stepbrothers and such especially, but not uncommonly it’s fathers and other biological relatives, and anyone else hanging around who wants to assert his machismo.

Reading these terrible stories makes for quite a contrast with the politically correct take on sexual assault common in certain circles in the United States, and increasingly being imposed on larger and larger circles, where men are denounced as rapists and predators if they do anything that by any stretch of the imagination could offend the most thin-skinned of women. The rape in this book is rape. It’s not “Ooh, somebody told a dirty joke in my presence, or made a pass at me, or looked at me in a way that made me feel uncomfortable, or brushed his hand against my ass, or had consensual sex with me that maybe wasn’t totally consensual because after all I had a drink earlier that evening,” etc.

In comparing the extraordinarily broad interpretations of rape and sexual assault that are becoming increasingly common in this country, with the kind of hard core rape so many of the migrants experience when traveling through Mexico, if not before, I’m of two minds. On the one hand, maybe you can say that the value of responding as vehemently as possible to the most trivial of sexual transgressions—or in some instances, gray area cases that maybe shouldn’t even count as transgressions—is that you shift the debate, the social environment, so much that genuine rape becomes thoroughly beyond the pale (which it should have been all along).

If we’re roommates, and I throw a conniption fit one morning when I discover you drank out of one of my coffee mugs, chances are you’re not going to assume it’s no big deal to help yourself to my car keys without asking when your car is unavailable and you want to go out.

On the other hand, I can also see how broadening the concept of sexual assault so much could lessen its impact, and in a way be insulting to those who really have been raped. Now when I read that some incredibly high percentage of women will be sexually assaulted in their four years of college or whatever, I don’t react with anything like the shock or outrage that I’m sure such claims are intended to elicit, because I’m thinking, “Well, yeah, if everyone who has ever had to redirect a guy’s hand making a subtle grab for her tits while making out on a date has been “sexually assaulted,” then I suppose it would be an awfully high percentage. Big deal.”

So I kind of react both ways—maybe being especially zealous in a politically correct way about the little things constitutes a deterrent to the bigger things, or maybe it trivializes the issue—but my reaction probably is more the latter than the former.

But anyway—after that aside—of course sexual assault is not the only way migrants are victimized. Most often they are robbed. It’s not uncommon they are traveling with a fair amount of money and valuables, as they must pay coyotes and such along the way, as well as have something with which to start their new life in the United States. So they’ve saved or borrowed every penny they can get in order to make this journey.

And so when the train stops at a station, and bandits—as often as not with the connivance of the authorities—climb aboard, there goes their life savings.

But just what they happen to have on them is often not enough to satisfy the criminals. Kidnapping for ransom is extremely common too. They know that many of the migrants are seeking to join family members who are already in the United States, and those family members may well have money. If they don’t, then someone else in the migrant’s life presumably does. If the migrant claims otherwise—that he or she is penniless and has no contacts who could pay ransom—maybe torture will jog their memory of that uncle or sibling or friend who just might be willing to wire a few hundred or thousand dollars to keep them alive.

Even when the drug gangs aren’t victimizing the migrants directly for ransom or whatever, they may still harass and dissuade them on the general principle that the more people who are trying to cross the border in a given area, the more attention it draws, and consequently the harder it is to smuggle drugs over the border in those areas.

There’s also obviously no guarantee that the coyotes and others promising assistance will actually deliver. They want their payment up front, in cash, after which they may well disappear, leaving the migrant as broke and without recourse as if he or she had fallen prey to bandits.

Then there are also all the non-human risks. (Not directly human anyway, though they’re all ultimately the consequences of human action and governmental policies.) An alarming number of exhausted people fall off the Beast itself, and are then sucked under the train and lose a limb if not their life. If they survive the Beast, perhaps they will succumb to the multiple day hikes across desert or other inhospitable terrain with little in the way of provisions. If not that, then plenty of people drown trying to swim across the Rio Grande to the United States.

As Martinez points out, the stricter the enforcement of the border has become on the United States side, with its walls, fences, increased personnel, high tech equipment, and vigilantes, the more risks migrants have had to take, venturing farther and farther from old established routes into areas with a greater prevalence of drug criminals, rapists, extreme temperatures, and the like.

One of the problems is that even if in principle, with access to all the relevant information and plenty of experience, you could reduce the risk significantly by the route you choose, the people you trust, the way you carry yourself, etc., many of these migrants are first timers, and they have little to rely on besides guesses, rumors, and the obsolete experience of people they know who made the journey years or decades earlier under very different circumstances. Not to mention a large number of them are kids, emotionally traumatized, and/or uneducated. It’s no surprise that they’re not all maximally savvy in their decisionmaking.

No one knows, and apparently all too few people care, how many migrants not only fail to complete their journey to the United States successfully but die trying. No doubt there are thousands of corpses, floating bloated in the Rio Grande, being picked over by vultures in the desert, or dumped by the side of a dirt road riddled with bullets after being gang raped. They are virtually all anonymous—no mention in the press, no identification in official Mexican government records.

Some of the migrants who don’t make it, or who make it temporarily and are then deported, still don’t return to their home country. Many simply try again until they get it right (or are killed). But large numbers end up as prostitutes in Mexico, or switch sides to join the various drug and other gangs and unreliable coyotes victimizing other migrants.

“Securing the border” is seen as an obvious good by virtually every politician, pundit, etc. taken seriously by the mainstream in the United States. Officials of both parties, up to and including presidents, compete over who can deport the most people, or better yet block them from entering the country illegally in the first place.

In the abstract, that’s not an unreasonable goal. A country presumably has a right to limit immigration, and to keep out those who don’t have permission to enter. Plenty of the people entering illegally are indeed bad guys—rarely if ever Arab terrorists as some on the Right fantasize, but certainly gang members in the massive international Latino gangs that now transcend borders and probably do more total damage in the United States and Mexico alike than older criminal groups like the Mafia, the Crips, and the Bloods.

But The Beast is very valuable in informing you as to the human costs of these policies. Many still judge the United States and others harshly for doing entirely too little to save Jews from the Holocaust. Well, today there are similarly suffering, desperate people—so desperate as to brave all the travails I’ve described here, which constitute only a small fraction of what is described in the book—seeking refuge, and again we are turning them away.

To make matters worse, often the United States bears a significant amount of the blame for the countries they’re fleeing being hellholes in the first place. For decades the U.S. government supported the murder, torture, and pauperization of whole populations on the grounds that it had to be done to stave off communism. So these aren’t random strangers showing up at our door; often they are people we have horrifically wronged.

I don’t know that that means we have to have a policy of completely unlimited immigration, where anyone who wants to come to this country may (though I’d prefer even that to the inhumanity of what we’re doing now), but surely policies in this area should be drastically liberalized. We don’t need higher fences on the southern border; we need another Statue of Liberty.

I mentioned in my opening that there are exceptions here and there to the tales of depressing and infuriating cruelty and indifference in The Beast, reasons not to completely lose one’s faith in humanity.

Some of that positivity comes from the migrants themselves. The very fact that they’re willing to endure what they endure because they’re pursuing a better life for themselves, or failing that for their children, is inspiring in itself.

But what I was mostly thinking of are the minority of people whose response to vulnerable people is not to victimize them but to actually reach out and help them, often putting themselves at considerable risk in doing so.

I’m not a religious person myself, but I don’t mind acknowledging that the overwhelming majority of people Martinez encounters in Mexico running migrant shelters and providing other forms of desperately needed aid are religious folks, primarily Catholics. Almost none of these brave priests and nuns will ever be the kind of famous religious figures (e.g., Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, etc.) that are revered for their humanitarianism (rightly or wrongly—for instance, I find Christopher Hitchens’s claims that Mother Teresa was something of a fraud mostly persuasive), but they are the kind of anonymous heroes that the world will never have enough of.


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