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The freight train that runs to the heart of Mexico's 'Drugs War': Riding 'La Bestia' to freedom or death

Paul Imison in Mexico City reveals how desperate migrants in search of a new life are falling into the clutches of ruthless drugs gangs

Every day, as many as 1,500 migrants alight from the notorious freight train known as La Bestia (“The Beast”) as it terminates on the outskirts of Mexico City.

As if the journey was not dangerous enough, members of Mexico’s most powerful and violent criminal gangs lie in wait as the migrants – mainly Central Americans – then traverse the 20km route between the railway tracks and the shelter for undocumented migrants in Huehuetoca.

“[The gangs] wait as people get off the train,” says Jorgé Andrade, who worked at the San José migrant shelter, run by a collective known  as Ustedes Somos Nosotros (“You  Are Us”).

“The people are usually dirty, tired and hungry when they arrive,” says Mr Andrade. “They’ve often been riding the train for seven or eight days. The criminals make them pay a toll to walk the 20 kilometres to the shelter. If they don’t pay, they kidnap, beat them, ask for sexual favours. In the worst case, they’ll be forced to work for the gangs or be killed.”

The shelter had been forced to close in November after the same criminal gangs – known as the Zetas and Maras – threatened the staff.

At its peak, the San José shelter had offered beds, food and medical supplies to 150-200 people per day, one of dozens of such shelters in Mexico, mainly run by the church and other civil society groups. Now, it has just reopened as a small cafeteria to provide refreshments for migrants.

The untold story of Mexico’s “Drug War” – the bloody rivalry between narco-traffickers – is that the violence affects thousands of people completely unconnected with the drugs trade. Amnesty International recently estimated that as many as 70,000 undocumented migrants went missing in Mexico between 2006 and 2012. Predominantly Central and South Americans using Mexico as a stepping stone to the US, many are the victims of extortion, kidnapping, rape and murder on their journey.

“There’s always been migration from Central America through Mexico,” Mr Andrade explains, “but more so now because of the situations in those countries – the poverty and violence.” 

The journey on The Beast, which travels daily from Chiapas on the southern border with Guatemala to the outskirts of Mexico City, is just as dangerous as the 20km walk that awaits the migrants on their arrival.

The train routinely carries hundreds of human beings hoping to avoid immigration checkpoints or encounters with corrupt local police. But gangs have hijacked the route, charging $100 (£64) or more for permission to mount the train.

Threats, attacks and extortion continue en route. The attacks are a vital component of Mexico’s organised crime underworld, and constitute a criminal industry estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars per year.

According to a report by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), in extortion cases the sums of money demanded ranged from $1,000 to $5,000. More than 90 of the 9,758 victims interviewed by the CNDH, between September 2008 and February 2009, said public officials, particularly the police, were involved in their kidnapping. 

Rudy, a 28-year old staying at the Casa Tochan migrant shelter in Mexico City, was a federal police officer in Honduras until threats  from gangs forced him to leave the country. “Work for the police and you’re practically working for the gangs,” he says.

His Facebook page is filled with memories from back home – pictures of relatives, former girlfriends, favourite dishes, as well as photos of him in his officer’s uniform. Like many migrants, Rudy rode The Beast on a draining journey that often leaves many maimed or dead. Rudy boasts that he made it unharmed. “My military training helped me a lot,” he says. 

Rudy denies he has plans to go to the US – the destination of choice for many migrants. His goal, he says, is to go to Monterrey, a prosperous city in northern Mexico, and find work. One thing he’s sure about is that he won’t return to Honduras: “I’d love to see my father again one day, but it’s just not safe for me to go back and live there.” 

By the very nature of undocumented migration, the number of people who cross Mexico can only ever be an estimate. But the National Migration Institute (INM) reports that up to 200,000 people cross the country every year. In 2010, nearly half of those were believed to come from Honduras, currently the most violent country in the world outside of a war zone. The other half hail from El Salvador, Guatemala, Cuba, Nicaragua and Colombia, as well as Asia, Africa and the Middle East. 

The CNDH reports that in 2010, 11,333 of these migrants were victims of kidnapping, although the figure is likely to be higher due to the rarity with which such attacks are reported. Migrants say they fear they will be perceived as the criminals if they report such crimes.

In 2011, the Santa Faustina Kowalska shelter in the state of Veracruz reported that some 80 per cent of the female migrants it hosts had been raped during their journey. Many acquire contraceptive injections ahead of the trip, knowing sexual assault is part of the price they will pay. 

The CNDH’s six-month investigation counted as many as 9,758 abductions of migrants – equivalent to 1,600 per month. Most of these kidnappings involved extortion via the migrants’ relatives in the US.  One of the key pieces of advice that shelters like San José offer migrants is not to tell anyone that they have family or friends waiting for them up north.

Following the brutal massacre of 72 migrants, found in a clandestine grave in Tamaulipas in August 2010, Mexican lawmakers unanimously passed the Ley de Migracion, or Migration Law. The law purportedly offers humanitarian visas to migrants so that they may legally enter Mexico without the need to hide from the authorities, and theoretically grants them the same rights and social services, such as healthcare, as Mexican citizens.

Although they support the reform, human rights groups have been critical of its implementation, pointing out that the requirements for the humanitarian visa are almost impossible to meet and that endemic corruption in Mexico means that police, military and local officials – often accused of protecting organised crime – rarely enforce laws intended to protect the vulnerable.

Marta Sanchez, of the Mesoamerican Migrants’ Movement, supports the new law in principle but is doubtful of its implementation: “The authorities view migration as a national security issue rather than an economic, human rights or human security issue. While there are advances in rhetoric, the situation for migrants is actually getting worse... Both the Mexican and the US governments criminalise migrants, and that’s a climate in which organised crime can thrive.”