In 2017, I documented La Bestia, Mexico has long been accused of turning a blind eye to Central American migrants traveling through the country en route to the United States. With the recent unaccompanied child migration crisis garnering major U.S. public and policymaker attention, the trains that have served as unofficial conduits for some of this migration have come under scrutiny, prompting the Mexican government to take action.
As many as half a million Central American immigrants annually hop aboard freight trains colloquially known as “La Bestia,” or the beast, on their journey to the United States. The cargo trains, which run along multiple lines, carry products north for export. As there are no passenger railcars, migrants must ride atop the moving trains, facing physical dangers that range from amputation to death if they fall or are pushed. Beyond the dangers of the trains themselves, Central American migrants are subject to extortion and violence at the hands of the gangs and organized-crime groups that control the routes north.
The dangers encountered on the journey through Mexico, whether on foot or on La Bestia, are many, including injury or death from unsafe travelling conditions, gang violence, sexual assault, extortion, kidnapping, and recruitment by organized crime.
Migrants travel on top of the train with nothing to hold on to. Accidents caused by train derailments and falls because of changes in speed or migrants falling asleep are common and have resulted in countless injuries, amputations, and sometimes death.
Beyond the very real danger of falling, migrants are vulnerable to the gangs and organized-crime groups that control the routes. At each stage of the journey, migrants are subject to extortion, theft, rape, and even murder if they fail to pay “protection” and other fees established by these groups. Gang members have been known to push migrants off moving trains if they are unable to pay. A report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found that members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang violently control the southern migration route in Mexico. With the recent reopening of the train route from Tapachula to Arriaga, Central American gangs have increased their presence in Chiapas. The gangs have begun working in concert with Mexican organized-crime groups such as Los Zetas—each controlling different territory along the route, each demanding bribes and threatening violence in return for safe passage. Organized groups have kidnapped—and sometimes murdered—thousands of migrants throughout Mexico. The Mexican government does not publish official statistics on migrant kidnappings, but the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), an autonomous institution funded by the government, reported more than 11,000 abductions of migrants between April and September 2010. Sexual violence, particularly against female migrants, has also been reported.
Gangs and members of organized crime are not the only ones benefitting from migrants’ journeys on La Bestia. Many pay smugglers to facilitate their passage. Train conductors are also part of the chain of extortion, sometimes demanding bribes, particularly of women and families with children, who want to board before the train starts moving. In addition, as migrants are thought to be carrying cash for bribes, they have become the target of robbery and violence from bandits. As most are traveling without proper documentation, many are fearful of reporting crimes and abuse against them to the Mexican authorities. In light of this, members of the Zetas and Maras have taken to policing the trains, removing other criminals even while exploiting the migrants for their own gain.