“Though the dream is easy, the voyage is incredibly dangerous,” writes Oscar Martinez, a young award-winning investigative journalist from El Salvador, who spent two years following in the footsteps of more than 250,000 migrants who make the perilous journey across Mexico every year. Most are trying to reach the US in search of “una vida mejor” – a better life. Others do not think of America, only the need to flee violence and oppression.
The statistics are terrifying. Amnesty International recently estimated that as many as 70,000 undocumented migrants went missing in Mexico between 2006 and 2012. An estimated 80 per cent of migrant women are raped on the journey.
But Martinez – who faces untold dangers as a reporter – gets beyond these numbers with skill and subtlety. He tells the stories of individuals with names, ages, faces, families, for whom migration is a matter of life and death. Originally published in 2010 under the title Los migrantes que no importan (“The migrants who don’t matter”), this English translation is a collection of his work for the respected ElFaro.net, which calls itself Latin America’s first online digital newspaper and prides itself on courageous journalism.
Tales of death and survival on “La Bestia” (The Beast) – the infamous freight train which carries thousands of migrants towards “El Norte”, on which Martinez travelled eight times for this book – are only part of his fluid account.
First, Martinez follows three brothers, Auner, Pitbull and El Chele, who fled their small Salvadorean city after their mother was gunned down for reasons unknown. It is not only narcos they fear, but local gangs, “coyote” traffickers, kidnappers, opportunist thieves, the authorities.
“On the migrant road, there are wolves and there are sheep … if a coyote knows he’s working with fresh meat, he’s going to try to squeeze them dry,” writes Martinez in an almost paternal manner, though the brothers cannot be much younger than he is.
Epifanio, a migrant originally from Oaxacana, has already spent three months in Tijuana when Martinez meets him. A skinny 33-year-old, he could easily slip through the border fence, the shorter sections of which were constructed in 1994 using scrap metal from the Gulf War. The wall of course raises the spectre of another American conflict – the “War on Drugs” – which many blame for endemic narco-violence that plagues much of Latin America. But in Martinez’s account, Epifanio does not concern himself with history, the events of which have rendered him “about 12 years too late” to cross the border without facing ever-tightening US border security.
The fortifications push the few migrants who still attempt to cross in this region up into the hills, where they are likely to be forced by gangs to carry drugs across the border. Others pay in the region of $3,500 (£2,200) for forged papers, hoping to fool the guards. “If they succeed, they’ll take about 10 more steps and board the trolley straight to San Diego,” writes Martinez. “If they fail, they face up to two years in prison.”
Throughout, Martinez reiterates that for migrants, knowledge is key. So many that he meets seem to have little idea what awaits them on their journey, perhaps because so few accounts like Martinez’s exist. All they know is that they have little choice but to “try their luck”, and to hope that their dream for a better life becomes a reality.