The Undocumented Journey North, Through Mexico

by Hari Balasubramanian

On Oscar Martinez's “The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail” — the English translation of “Los Migrantes Que No Importan” (The Migrants Who Do Not Matter). Translation by Daniela Maria Ugaz and John Washington.


ThebeastFrom 2000-2006, I was a graduate student at Arizona State University in the Phoenix metro area. My neighborhood, a ten minute walk from the university, had cheap apartments where Asian students lived alongside immigrants from south of the US-Mexico border. We students had visas, had made safe journeys on flights, and now worked and studied on campus. Many Hispanic immigrants, in contrast, had made life threatening journeys and had crossed the border illegally. They now did construction, farm, and restaurant jobs for a living. At the neighborhood Pakistani-Indian restaurant, I remember seeing – through a decorative window shaped as a Mughal motif – three Hispanic workers in the kitchen patiently chopping the onions and tomatoes that would go into the curries that I enjoyed.

Some Indian students looked down on these immigrants, blaming them for petty bicycle thefts and how unsafe the streets were at night. And just as all East Asians were “Chinkus”, the immigrants from south of the border were “Makkus” – a twist on “Mexican”, used mostly (but not always) in a negative sense. No one, though, had a clear sense what the stories of these immigrants were. While it is true that a large percentage of those who cross the border are from Mexico, tens of thousands each year come from the troubled countries further south – Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras. This year, an estimated 60,000 unaccompanied minors from Central American countries, fleeing violence in their home towns, will cross the border. Surprisingly, even hundreds of undocumented South Asians cross via Mexico – but more on that later.

In the long view of history, this is how things look. First, European immigrants ethnically cleanse most of North America of its American Indian inhabitants. This was illegal immigration – just consider the number of land treaties broken – but at the time it was glorified as Manifest Destiny. With help from Africans kidnapped and enslaved against their will (coerced immigration) European settlers eventually create a powerful country that now draws people from all continents. Among modern trends in immigration, it is the Hispanic one that stands out. Undocumented immigrants – the numbers are hard to estimate, but there seem to be 10-12 million of them in the US – have altered the demographic and culture in many states, much to the consternation of American conservatives. An interesting fact, though of no practical consequence, is that the mixed race (mestizo) and indigenous immigrants of Mexico and Central America, crossing over in their tens of thousands, happen to be the closest genetic relatives of the North American Indians.


What exactly does the undocumented journey north look like? To reach El Norte – as the United States is called – a Central American taking the overland route has to first overcome a “colossal obstacle”: Mexico. In The Beast, the Salvadorian journalist Oscar Martinez reports on the harrowing details of this long journey – one to three thousand miles, depending on the route you take.

Mexico Routes

Suppose you are a young man, a teenager, directly affected by the gang violence in Guatemala City or Tegucigalpa (Honduras), or San Salvador. You may have been forced to join a gang, such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) or Barrio-18, or you might have inadvertently witnessed a murder that makes you a target. Maybe your siblings or friends have already been recruited or killed. Or, you are a young woman who has been orphaned or abandoned by your parents, sexually abused by relatives. Maybe you are a bricklayer, a policewoman, a farmer, earning very little and tired with how things are. Whoever you are and whatever the reason, there is a certain kind of desperation that propels you north to find a better life: una vida mejor, as it is known on the migrant trail. You flee north not knowing the serious risk you are taking; there seems to be no other choice.

First, you get to the Guatemala-Mexico border. The Suchiate River is a popular crossing; this gets you into Chiapas, one of Mexico's poorest states. The dangers start as soon as you cross. In Chiapas, to avoid migration checkpoints, you might trek through back roads – a trail through a shadowy network of ranches, called La Arrocera. You are an undocumented traveler in Mexico, without a visa, so you prefer to maintain a low profile. But the Mexicans know this too. They know that, because of the risk of being deported, you will not report any extortions, crimes, assaults and robberies that might happen to you. Report to the police and the police might simply turn you over to the gangs, whom they are working together with. If members and spies of the vicious Los Zetas drug cartel – to give just one example – gets to know that you have a family member across in the US, they will sweet talk or torture you into giving that family member's number. You'll be kidnapped and detained until money is sent to the kidnappers through a Western Union wire transfer.

Your first goal is to get to a southern town – say Tapachula or Tenosique or Arriaga – where freight trains start their journey. You will hitch a ride on top of boxcars or anything you can hold on to, along with hundreds of other migrants, with very little to protect you from the sudden jolts and movements of the train. This notorious series of train rides is collectively known as La Bestia – The Beast (some pictures here). If you are terribly tired – as is often the case after days of traveling – close your eyes and lose your grip or foothold, your journey ends (though, as Martinez writes in the afterword, there are migrants who, even after losing a leg on La Bestia, will try to continue the journey on crutches after a two year recovery: so powerful is the urge to migrate north). It's not just about the fear of falling off and getting mutilated. Traveling with you and sometimes pretending to be a migrants are armed bandits and spies, keen on stealing the money you have. These bandits may board at towns where the train stops or slows down.

Your only help on this journey are small shelters run by Catholic groups and human rights organizations, where you can rest for a day, have a free meal before moving on.

In general, the passing of thousands of migrants like you is good business for the locals. Food, transportation, information, safe shelters and routes – these are what you need. But in a country where large swathes of territory are run by narco gangs, business essentially becomes one of extortion, kidnappings, random abuse and murders. After drugs and arms smuggling, swindling money from migrants is the third most lucrative business for the cartels. Martinez notes that “talking about the narco's fees is as common as talking about the rise of the price of tortillas”. There are guides, also called polleros, whom you pay to guide you through to the border. But the polleros cannot work independently. A pollero has to have a contact high up in the drug cartel command chain, and essentially works for the cartel, or pays a hefty tax. If the pollero decides to freelance, he is in big trouble, and so are the migrants traveling with him.

Moving north in this fashion, occasionally doing odd jobs in towns to support yourselves and saving money, you will get close enough to the towns along the extensive desert border with the United States. At the border you find a wall. “The word ‘wall',” Martinez writes, “is a mere four letters which signify much more: the constant presence of agents, cars, helicopters, motion sensors, surveillance cameras, horses, all terrain vehicles, reflectors, and then, of course, the actual physical wall itself.” With so much surveillance, your choices on where to cross are limited. Inevitably you will run into the heavily armed cartels trying to get their drugs across. The highly valued drugs have priority of course, and the cartels don't want groups of migrants attracting the attention of border patrol agents.

After all this – after a month or more of traveling undocumented in Mexico, riding the rails, evading the cartels, bandits, the Mexican police and migration authorities, often all colluding together – if you do make it across, into the California, Arizona or New Mexico or Texas desert, risking death by dehydration or drowning in the rushing waters of the Rio Grande; after all this, there is a very good chance that you will be caught and deported. Even if you manage to get to a major American city and find work you still may be deported within a year or even longer. A Catholic priest who runs a shelter for migrants in Tijuana tells Martinez: “Before about 30% of the people in the shelter were deportees and the rest were on their way to cross. Now, about 90% are deportees.”


If you are a Central American woman, you start the journey knowing that you'll be abused. Consider what Martinez learns from Luis Flores, who helps victims of human trafficking in southern Mexico: “There is an expression for the transformation of the migrant's body: cuerpomatic. The body becomes a credit card, a new platinum-edition 'bodymatic' which buys you a little safety, a little bit of cash and the assurance that your travel buddies won't get killed. Your bodymatic, except for what you get charged, buys a more comfortable ride on the train.” En route, you might decide to work as a waitress and or as a dancer in a border town in Chiapas. An entire chapter in The Beast focuses on Central American women who planned to reach the US, but are now stuck in Chiapas. If you are a lighter skinned Central American, you'll earn more because lighter skin is rare and in demand in mostly dark and indigenous Chiapas.

On the trail, migrants have to use their “wits and will” to escape sexual abuse. Like Paola, a 23-year old transsexual Guatemalan. Paula cleverly tells her would-be abusers in Chiapas: “Look here, do what you want but for your sake, I'd put a condom on. I've got some over there in a backpack. It'd be for your own good, you know, I've got AIDS. It's just well, I didn't expect this sort of problem. I thought you were all Macho men, you know, the sort that only rape women.” Paola's fake claim – she did not have AIDS – and taunting the men about their masculinity worked. The men, after cursing her profusely, asked her get lost.

Martinez often starts a chapter with a dramatic and tense story – such as Paola's above – then leads the reader to the next set of stories, in the process revealing all pieces of the puzzle relevant to the migrant route. Martinez's tone is urgent. He is always on the side of the migrant who has no real voice in Mexico. Wherever possible he evokes details around him: the jungle landscape of Chiapas, the jangling noises on the freight train, the bleakness of the desert. His material comes from years of deep immersion, a firsthand experience of the dangers: long hours atop freight trains; visiting towns where everyone is paralyzed by the fear of the drug cartels; countless conversations with migrants, reporters, human rights workers, Catholic priests running shelters, the polleros who guide the migrants.

Martinez's immersion, in one case, is literal: near Nuevo Laredo (across from Texas' Laredo) he dives into the Rio Grande along with a migrant, trying to get a sense of how hard it is to swim across to the American side.


I've visited Mexico many times. What drew me there was its complex indigenous past. But in searching for an abstract, centuries-old past, I'd missed the modern story that was unfolding in the country. Martinez's book made me look at my travels in Mexico in a very different light.

In December 2008, on my way to the remote, moss-covered Yaxchilan ruins in the Lacandon jungle of Chiapas, I had been stopped at checkpoints. I remember the authorities being curious about who I was. I hadn't understood then that these checkpoints were meant to catch migrants, many of whom were probably using trails in the jungles all around. To get to Yaxchilan, I took a boat on the Usumacinta River, which separates Mexico from Guatemala. I hadn't known then that it was by crossing such a largely unguarded river border (image below) that a migrant begins his or her journey north. I hadn't known that a month prior to my visit, a migrant had been raped and murdered in Chiapas, along with her two twin babies. Her story had made it to the newspapers but there are hundreds of stories that don't.


In May 2007, I happened – also by chance – to be at the northern end of the migrant route, in Mexico's largest state, Chihuahua. I was traveling with a group of archaeologists from the University of Arizona to the ruins at Casas Grandes. We started from Tucson in Arizona, an hour north of the border. We were supposed to cross in the town of Douglas. That would get us into the Mexican state of Sonora; a highway through the mountains would lead to Chihuahua, to Casas Grandes. But our plans changed quickly. There had been some trouble in Sonora, near the border town of Agua Prieta – something to do with drug or human trafficking gangs. Forty men had attacked a police station and stolen arms. A grenade had been thrown at a newspaper office. A shootout followed as the police and army responded.

So we avoided the Sonoran route, and instead took the longer route through New Mexico directly into Chihuahua. We entered Mexico at the small town of Palomas. The main town avenue was split by a row of forked streetlights. On each side were informal shops and businesses, painted bright green, yellow and pink (my first experience of the Mexican penchant for contrasting and bright colors). Near the passport control office, a frail looking man approached me with wallets and sunglasses to sell. Indigenous Tarahumara women – noticeably different from other Mexicans in Palomas due to their chocolate dark complexions and flowing, multicolored skirts – begged with their children or sold a few souvenirs laid out on a rectangular piece of cloth. I learned later that the Tarahumara have been caught in the narco wars, because their homeland, the Sierra Madre range of Chihuahua, happens to be the best place to grow lucrative drugs.

I walked out to the street median in Palomas to take a picture. Just as I was about to click, a battered car with perhaps four men in it rushed by. The driver angrily gestured that I should put away the camera. I was puzzled, but instinctively did as asked. According to Martinez's book, Palomes back in 2007 was hotbed of human and drug trafficking.

As we drove from Palomas deeper into Chihuahuan desert, we noticed the heavily armed military, even soldiers atop tanks, moving in the opposite direction. This was the then president Felipe Calderon's war against the drug cartels. Calderon had been elected just one year ago, in 2006. In the ensuing years, the drug wars spiraled out of control. The Chihuahuan city of Juarez, 150 odd kilometers east of Palomas, was on its way to becoming one of the most violent cities in world (homicides started declining only in 2013). My Mexican friend from Juarez, who went to graduate school with me, told me how gangs that had kept violence to themselves now began to blatantly harass civilians. His parents' home was robbed by an armed gang.

The Beast begins as a book primarily about Central Americans journeying north through Mexico. But as the chapters progress, there is a shift. To describe the plight of the migrants, Martinez finds that it is necessary to show how deeply the cartels have infiltrated Mexican life, police, government. The book ends up holding a mirror to Mexico of the Calderon years, when a staggering number of homicides and disappearances happened. As Francisco Goldman writes in the New Yorker – see pieces 1, 2, 3 and 4 – it is the exhaustion that Mexicans feel with this deepening infiltration of the cartels that is at the heart of the heated protests this fall, precipitated by the disappearance of 43 young men in the state of Guerrero.


Some other related thoughts:

The South Asian Angle: A 2009 report by Homeland Security estimated that India was number six – after Mexico, the Central American countries, and Philippines – with 200,000 undocumented immigrants currently in the US. Between 2009 and 2011, 2600 Indians were detained by the Border Patrol along the US-Mexico border. This coincided with a visa-on-arrival policy that Guatemala and other Central American countries allowed for Indian passport holders. So Indians could fly in to Guatemala City and start the journey north. The cross continental flight suggests Indian migrants had more money than most Central Americans – perhaps the money bought them a safer passage. Guatemala has now stopped visa on arrival for Indians.

A Bangladeshi in Quito: In October this year – in one of those strange, unlikely encounters that happen during travel – I met met a Bangladeshi man selling samosas, 3 for $1, in the old town of Quito, Ecuador. He was the only South Asian among many Ecuadorian street vendors. The samosas were in a container – perhaps a hundred of them. Business was brisk. To appeal to the locals, he had cleverly called the samosas “Empanadas de India“.

I spoke with him in Hindi. He had been in Ecuador for five years and was fluent in Spanish. Life had been reasonable, he said; accommodation, food and cost of living were inexpensive in Quito. He was in a position now to apply for an Ecuadorian passport. But his interest had always been in migrating to the United States – the same route via Mexico that others take. Some acquaintances of his had made it there already. He asked me about jobs in the US. Unfortunately, I had no concrete sense on what an undocumented immigrant could expect. I did tell him that the journey through Mexico, from what I'd heard, was risky. But he seemed intent and had a more optimistic view. All this was before I read Martinez's book — if I had known of The Beast, I would have urgently recommended it to him.

How unusual and compelling his story is: here was a man from Bangladesh in, of all places, Ecuador, biding his time patiently, saving up money by selling that most South Asian of snacks, samosas, and even securing a backup citizenship, so that he could risk the journey north!

SinNombreSin Nombre: While The Beast contains a multitude of individual stories and details about the migrant trail, the movie Sin Nombre tackles the same theme with a simpler, focused narrative. It tells the story of one Honduran family making its way through Mexico, hoping to unite with other family members already in New Jersey. On the way, they meet a escaping member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang. Sin Hombre is fiction, but to see Sin Hombre while reading The Beast is like watching a documentary based on the details in the book.

One of the beautiful and heartwarming moments in the film is when weary migrants on the moving train receive packets of food and water, thrown at them by the locals. This is a reference to the Veracruz-based group Las Patronas. The Mexican women of Las Patronas have been quietly helping migrants with food and water for more than two decades. In 2013, Las Patronas won one of Mexico's most prestigious human rights awards.