THE BEAST: riding the rails and dodging narcos on the migrant trail

THE BEAST: riding the rails and dodging narcos on the migrant trail
By Oscar Martinez

Verso Books £9.99

This book may be of interest to readers of ICN for two reasons: first, in the light of continuing migration from Syria, it offers a parallel view of the danger and misery endured by Central Americans fleeing violence that has devastated their communities; and second, because the response of Catholics is the only bright spot in this dismal tragedy.

Oscar Martinez is a gifted and brave Salvadorian journalist who joined the wave of Central Americans escaping a drug gang-fuelled conflict that makes sleepy towns in Honduras statistically as deadly as the Middle East. If you happen to witness something you shouldn't, your whole family will be killed. If you are a shop-keeper who cannot pay the mobsters their protection money, your whole family will be killed. No wonder they leave everything behind in the hope of sneaking into the USA to find back-breaking undocumented work.

Martinez joined migrants on their hair-raising journey eight times, including risking his life to cling to the top of train carriages for eight hours at a time in freezing weather. Literally thousands fall to their deaths, but, in common with the savage violence endured by the migrants, the Mexican authorities don't bother to investigate. Police and army are so compromised by their "narco" connections, or so afraid, they look away as drug gangs kidnap, torture, rape and murder.

Narco members trick migrants into revealing if they are trying to join family already in the States, and then they imprison them until their relatives pay up. Mexicans living along the migrants' route prey upon the strangers, deceiving, stealing, and raping eight out of ten women making the journey; six out of ten men are sexually assaulted. They do so with impunity, knowing no illegal migrant will file a complaint or stay around to be a witness.

Train drivers slow down so bandits can climb on and steal from the Central Americans; train crews also extort, and helpful locals point the travellers in the wrong direction, into the arms of kidnappers. Police will hand the migrants back to their kidnappers, should they escape. A kindly old lady selling tortillas produces a gun and herds migrant children into the grip of the notorious Los Zetas gang.

Young women are kidnapped and trafficked into prostitution, and people are forced to become drug mules to get the gangs' product into the USA. What is hard to digest is that many young people from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are escaping such violent communities that prostitution and drug smuggling don't seem so bad. A boy who collect fares on buses in Guatemala City is told by the ruling Mara Salvatruchas gang that he must shoot bus drivers who won't give the gang protection money. When he refuses, he is shot.

The chink of light in all of this misery is the decency of Catholic lay people, priests and nuns who provide shelter, food and somewhere to wash to the thousands making the perilous journey. Certainly, there are priests and church authorities taking donations from drug gangs, in exchange for their silence. But there are also everyday Catholic heroes, risking their lives to be good Samaritans.

The book should be read by all those who want to build walls to exclude migrants, especially those who never leave the comfort of their limousines and private jets, and who believe they are "brave" and "tough" because they spout politically incorrect slogans. But, alas, reading or empathizing isn't something the wall-builders do.

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