The Beast Strikes Again: Central American Migrants Feel Brunt of Failed Immigration Policies

Increasingly migrants are forced to travel via the dangerous La Bestia, the freight train that traverses Mexico, which earned its name because it has taken the lives of so many of its passengers. Death recently struck again, when La Bestia derailed in Huimanguillo, Tabasco, close to the Guatemalan border.

Security is a constant buzzword heard in the latest round of debate on US immigration reform. Democratic and Republican politicians alike are making promises to US citizens that the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013” will focus on prioritizing their security. The promulgation of this word begs the question, security for whom? Is security guaranteed for the tens of thousands of family members who will not gain a path to citizenship if the new reform package is passed? What about security for the migrants who, despite an increasingly militarized border, will still make the journey, clinging to the metal grates of La Bestia (The Beast), the freight train that traverses Mexico, and then trek through the Sonora Desert.

Increasingly migrants are forced to travel via the dangerous La Bestia, which earned its name because it has taken the lives of so many of its passengers. Death recently struck again, when La Bestia derailed in Huimanguillo, Tabasco, close to the Guatemalan border. At least six migrants were killed and more than twenty-two were severely injured, many of whom had to be rescued via canoes due to the inaccessibility of the remote area in which the train derailment took place.

Milton Alexis Umaya, a Salvadoran migrant who survived the derailment, gave the following testimony, which was featured in Desinformemonos:

In my train car we were 40 or 50 people and we were all sleeping at that time. Suddenly the car flipped and threw me to the side but some women broke their hands. I helped several get out from the pile of scrap metal, but there was one woman I couldn’t help because a piece of metal had gone through her neck and killed her.

Mexican press attributed the tragedy to the train’s high velocity, rain, and previous theft of bolts holding the tracks together. While these may be the physical conditions that caused the train’s derailment, they are not the propelling factors that caused these migrants’ deaths. The intellectual authors of this tragedy are the US and Mexican governments, whose xenophobic policies have pushed migrants to the margins, forcing them to travel using the most dangerous routes possible.

Ruben Figueroa is a volunteer at the migrant refuge house “72” in Tenosique, Tabasco. “Migrants’ path within Mexico is a true Holocaust,” he said in an interview with Upside Down World. “They are the perfect target for organized crime and corrupt government, because the Mexican government fails to guarantee their security and there is no mechanism to grant them travel visas.”

Legally, only immigration authorities are allowed to ask for your personal documents, but what is written on paper doesn’t always manifest itself in reality. In Mexico, it seems as if Arizona’s SB1070 is the unofficial law, whereby anyone traveling with a Central American accent or facial features is subject to a security check. Thus, instead of traveling on reliable ground transit, many migrants board La Bestia. It is estimated that anywhere between 250 and 2,500 migrants ride on top of every train, hanging on for dear life. They use rope to tie their belt loops to the metal grate, so that when they fall asleep, they don’t tumble to their deaths or lose limbs beneath the train’s massive steel wheels.

La Bestia has also become a focal point for organized crime, delivering thousands of vulnerable bodies to be exploited to drug cartels each week. Just to board the train, you have to pay a quota that can range from $100 to $300 (USD). If you refuse to pay, it is likely you will be murdered.

Photo by Joel Martínez.Luis Fernando Martinez, who traveled to Mexico from Honduras via La Bestia, spoke to Upside Down World from the side of the train tracks in Huehuetoca, a migrant crossing located an hour outside of Mexico City. Martinez says many people along the route offer their help but he has realized there is a dark side to their amicability.

“They want to bring you to their house to give you a bath, to give you something to eat, but with the intention of kidnapping us,” explains Martinez.

He also speaks about the complicity of the security forces and questions the lack of police forces patrolling migrant routes in Veracruz. “The bad people buy off the police there. They know that they can get $4,000 or $5,000 from one migrant, and they know to buy off the policeman, it is just $10,000.”

The majority of migrants kidnapped in Veracruz are released once their families in the US send ransom money, and the migrants continue on their journey. Further along the route, migrants who are kidnapped don’t have the same luck because the cartels’ motives are to recruit foot soldiers.

While the spike of everyday violence in the post-coup landscape has caused a surge in the number of migrants leaving Honduras, it is important to note that many of those caught in the jaws of La Bestia are people who have been deported from the US.

Elvira Arellano was deported from the US in 2007, prior to which she made national headlines by taking sanctuary in a Chicago church, refusing to be separated from her young son. She is now active in the migrant rights movement in Mexico and says that the US is complicit in the violence suffered by Central American migrants.

“The [U.S.] is not only deporting Mexicans as a result of their racist and xenophobic policies but also many Central Americans,” said Arellano. “These men and women are parents of children in the US and the only thing they are doing is crossing through Mexico to return to the United States. But unfortunately many are victims to extortion, kidnappings and rape.”

As deportations increase in the US, with over 2 million people deported under Obama and the current administration. Border security has been tightened, making crossing back into the US increasingly difficult. At least 477 individuals died along the U.S.-Mexico border in 2012 during their attempt to enter the US, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

With the passage of the Mérida Initiative (Plan Mexico) in 2008, it seems that the US/Mexico border has traveled south to impose itself on the Mexico/Guatemala border. The US had already dedicated over $1.9 billion dollars for “countering drug trafficking, organized crime, money laundering and securing the border.”

In August of this year, the Obama Administration discussed with Mexican officials the creation of a three-tier security system that will extend more than 100 miles north of Mexico’s border with Guatemala and Belize.

In addition, while the ‘Gang of Eight’s’ immigration bill promises to extend a path to regularization for tens of thousands of immigrants, it is a double-edged sword that would provide $30 billion in funding for increased border security, much of which will go to defense contractors. An article recently published in Forbes magazine stated that, “the Immigration Modernization Act reads like a shopping list of high-tech and high-cost military surveillance and sensor systems, mandating the purchase of everything from helicopters to night vision goggles to drones.” The bill passed the senate but has yet to advance further, and reform advocates are not crossing their fingers. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has announced that she may introduce a very similar bill that would also lead to further border militarization.

While the number of Mexicans migrating may have dropped, it is estimated that 500,000 people currently cross into the US via the US/Mexico border every year. In Mexico, migrant rights activists have focused their campaigns on the human rights of those crossing, affirming that all have the right to human mobility. Roxanna Rodriguez is a researcher with the Autonomous University of Mexico who believes the US will never be able to build a wall high enough to stop immigration. “Migrants will continue to cross the border as many times as it is necessary. The migrants have a necessity to leave their home countries, an economic need or a personal motivation or in search of a dreams.”

As well as dangers related to crossing the US border itself, migrants have felt the brunt of increased security measures within Mexico. For example, Mexican immigration forces and municipal police raided a small migrant house in Huehuetoca, Mexico State during breakfast on June 17, 2013. Andrea Gonzales is a coordinator with the migrant house and was present during the raid.

“Municipal police are not allowed to assist in these raids, and it was them who were assisting the Institute of Migration. They beat people, they pulled them out, and they grabbed them on the tracks, all the way to the other migrant house, where they grabbed 40 people. They broke their own laws and regulations,” said Gonzales.

Alberto Velasquez, a Honduran migrant who had been deported from the US, told Upside Down World that his life was threatened during the raid. “[The police] grabbed my countrymen and aggressively yanked them, cursing at them, and then entered the dining hall. I ran to the right and a policeman told me that if I took another step further he would shoot,” said Velasquez.

Eduardo Barragan, the secretary of Huehuetoca City Council, justified the raid, stating at a press conference, “We are trying to mitigate the presence of migrants in situations that we have seen like that of San Jose, or waiting at the speed bumps on street corners, or asking for money in the market, or drinking in public.”

The migrant house was forced to close its doors in August due to constant threats from both the government and organized crime. A few weeks later, twenty Central American migrants were detained in a raid on hostels in the northern city of Monterrey.

While the coming months may see the passage of an immigration reform bill that will provide regularization for some and a likely increase in “border security”, there is little doubt that Central American migrants will continue to be subject to harsh and violent conditions, such as those faced by those who board La Bestia.

Andalusia Knoll is a multimedia journalist based in Mexico City.  She is a frequent contributor to Free Speech Radio News, Truthout and The Real News Network and collaborates with various independent media collectives throughout Mexico including Subversiones. You can follow her on Twitter at @andalalucha and view more or her work on her blog.