Central American migrants trekking through Mexico to the United States have traditionally been unfazed by government policies, ad campaigns, and even politically commissioned jingles intended to deter people from making the journey north. That’s because people who think their lives or family’s wellbeing is on the line will risk everything to emigrate, regardless of whatever natural or man-made obstacles are put in their path.
That’s the central argument of Salvadoran journalist Oscar Martinez, who covers immigration for El Faro and penned what’s considered to be the authoritative book on the topic of Central American immigrants moving through Mexico, “The Beast.” His book is named after the infamous Mexican cargo train that rattles its way northward carrying Central American migrants sitting on top and clinging to its sides.
"The immigrants who cross Mexico to arrive at the United States have shown for decades that whatever obstacle you put in their way, they are going to keep migrating," Martinez told Fusion during a phone interview this week.
Martinez doubts the Mexican government’s recently announced efforts to crack down on migrants hopping the northbound freight train will work as planned. Mexican authorities could stop the train if they really wanted to, but Martinez says he doesn't understand the point.
"They are going to travel one way or another, and they are going to continue traveling north through Mexico,” Martinez said. “They are going to continue to look for ways to get through Mexico to arrive in the United States, because that's what they have done since the 70s. If this Mexican government believes that it's going to stop the flow of Central American migrants, it's stupid."
The Mexican government, under pressure from panicked politicians in El Norte, announced this week that it is going to try to prevent Central American stowaways from riding the train. Mexican Secretary of the Interior Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong told a local radio station that the train is "for cargo, not for passengers," and that Mexico can't keep letting migrants "put their lives at risk" by hopping aboard.
But Osorio’s plan, which calls for the creation of a new agency to coordinate immigration policy in southern Mexico, lacks in specifics.
The U.S. is watching Mexico's efforts closely. Ambassador Thomas A. Shannon, a senior U.S. State Department official, recently returned from a trip to Southern Mexico, where he meet with Mexican authorities to discuss immigration issues. He told Fusion that La Bestia was one of the items on their agenda.
"Well, obviously, safe migration doesn’t involve riding atop a train," he said Thursday. "So the extent to which that doesn’t happen would be a good thing. The Mexicans are well aware of the challenges and they’re dealing with it.”
The Train of Death
La Bestia, also known as “El tren de la Muerte” or “The Train of Death” has always been dangerous. Migrants risk attack from AK-47-wielding bandits, and many have died or lost limbs from falling under the train. Derailments are all too common, and often tragic.
Wilfredo, a member of the Association for Returned Disabled Migrants, lost his leg to La Bestia in Veracruz. Photo by Encarni Pindado
The situation became even more perilous in 2007, according to Martinez. That’s when the Zetas, the notoriously brutal group of hitmen whose founding members were veterans of the Mexican army's special forces, split from their employers, the Gulf Cartel, and began to kidnap and extort migrants on a larger scale. As the Mexican drug war turned ever more violent between 2007 and 2010, mass graves of migrants were discovered in the desert, like the one of 31 bodies found last month in state of Veracruz. Migrants riding the train became a regular target. Women on the train risked rape or being kidnapped and forced into sex slavery. More than 11,000 migrants were abducted during one six-month period in 2010.
Yet none of these threats stemmed the tide of northbound immigrants. On the contrary, emigration increased during that period, driven by its own "push-and-pull" factors.
"Not even the Zetas were able to stop the flow of Central American migrants,” Martinez says. The real solution to the problem, he says, is an integral approach that would allow for more legal migration in the short term, while addressing the systemic issues of impunity, poverty and crime that plague the countries of Central America's "northern triangle" of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. “The only thing that could stop this are proposals to improve the life of the Central American countries — humanitarian visas that allow them to transit another way."
The ‘Balloon Effect’
Recent history has also shown that closing part of the migration route does little to change the overall dynamic. In 2005, Hurricane Stan flooded roads and destroyed bridges in the southern state of Chiapas, where migrants hop aboard La Bestia in the city of Arriaga. After the storm, migrants found other ways around. The phenomena is known as the “balloon effect,” pinching one area moves the bulge to another.
Martinez believes that increased law enforcement in Mexico and the United States has only served to increase the cost of the journey for migrants, thereby enriching coyotes (people smugglers) and the cartels who tax them. It's an opinion shared by human-rights activists who work along the migrant route.
"The more restrictions they put on migration, the more they increase the business of [transporting] migrants," said Marta Sánchez Soler, director of the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement. "Every time they add another restriction, they put migration more in the hands of organized crime."
There are also doubts about President Barack Obama’s proposal to throw money at the problem. The administration has asked Congress for $3.7 billion to deal with the crisis of unaccompanied youth at the border, but only $295 million, or 8 percent, is designated for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
"This is the degree to which the United States believes that the solution lies in improving conditions for Central America; the rest will go to prosecuting coyotes, to seal off more the border and principally, to deport more people,” Martinez said. “If they think that with these measures they are going to solve the problem of migration, they're mistaken.”
Fusion Immigration Editor Ted Hesson contributed reporting to this story.
@JaredGoyette is a digital news editor at Fusion.