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Riding The Beast: A Dangerous Migration


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we talk with a filmmaker and star of the new film "Mother of George." It's set in a community of Nigerian immigrants to New York, and it tells an age-old story of newlywed struggles and of reconciling the old ways with the new, but in a fresh way. That's coming up. But first, another story of people on the move. Every year, tens of thousands of Central Americans from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador make a perilous overland journey to the United States. They travel north through Mexico to the U.S. border, riding on top of rusty cargo trains, collectively called La Bestia, or The Beast.


OSCAR MARTINEZ: (Speaking through translator) What is The Beast? The Beast is a myth in the immigrant world. The Beast is one of the most intense moments of the journey of an undocumented immigrant coming in through Mexico.

MARTIN: That's the voice of Salvadoran journalist Oscar Martinez speaking through a translator. Martinez has ridden The Beast eight times himself, interviewing people on their way to the U.S. In 2010, his reporting resulted in a book called "The Beast," which has just been published in English. And NPR's Jasmine Garsd sat down with Martinez in Mexico City. And she's with us from there to tell us more about their conversation. Jasmine, welcome.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Thank you so much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Now we're used to hearing about Mexicans crossing the border into the U.S. and what that journey is like. But what about the trip through Mexico? Is the trip that Oscar Martinez describes that these Central Americans making very different?

GARSD: Oh, absolutely. I mean, depending on where you're coming from in Central America, you have to cross three borders. And these Central American migrants are especially targeted here in Mexico by drug gangs like the Zeta gang that really control a lot of these areas through which La Bestia runs. And they're especially prone or targeted for kidnapping and increasingly for human trafficking. And in the best-case scenario, you get mugged and - but a lot of times, it's the worst-case scenario for them.

MARTIN: Well, if the journey is difficult for men - and Oscar Martinez follows a number of men making the trip - you have to imagine that, for women, it is particularly horrendous. And could you talk a little bit about that?

GARSD: Yes. You know, one of the most difficult reads of this book is the sheer amount of sexual assault. I've read estimates by NGOs of 6 out of 10 women who embark on this journey being sexually assaulted. And that's really just what gets reported, and obviously, because of the circumstances, the clandestine nature of these people, they don't report these crimes. And one of the difficult things about what he writes in his book is that the women who embark on this journey - and they are many - they see this as inevitable. There's this attitude of, well, I hope this doesn't happen. But it will. Increasingly, gangs like the Zeta gang have created this whole apparatus for trafficking of women and forcing them into prostitution.

MARTIN: I understand that you have a clip from your conversation.

GARSD: Absolutely. I asked him, you know, how it was to talk to these women who go on this journey. And here's what Martinez had to tell me.


MARTINEZ: (Speaking through translator) And you discover - when they finally tell you that they were raped - you discover the profound desire they had to tell someone and for someone to listen to them. And they tell you once and then again, and they start remembering details. And they can't stop the flow of words, even when you think you can no longer endure their story. It's obvious that these people want to tell their stories, but nobody is waiting for this battered community on the other side. Nobody is asking, hey, what happened to you?

MARTIN: I think that the level of violence that many people in Mexico are experiencing - or have been experiencing over the last five years or so, or even perhaps going back further - is horrific. I think a lot of people understand it, even if they don't necessarily want to engage in it that often. But is there anything that surprised you?

GARSD: No matter how many times I hear this story, I'm always surprised by - or just taken aback by - what people will go through to achieve what they perceive as a better life. The stories told in this book, in "The Beast," they indicate a level of violence that is even shocking for someone who has been following the news coming out of Mexico. Basically, what he says in the book is that, you know, back in the '80s - it's never been a safe trip. There was a very high chance that you would be mugged on the train, in the southern area, especially by - I don't know - La Mara Salvatrucha. And there was a very high chance that you could fall off the train and get hurt. Nowadays, it's very probable that you can get kidnapped, your family will have to pay a ransom or that, you know, you'll get stuck in a brothel, forced into prostitution.

MARTIN: Is there any move in Mexico to try to offer some protection for people who are going through this? Recognizing a fact that this is illegal transit, I mean, that this is not something that's obviously sanctioned. This is not something that they want to encourage, but is there any effort to stop it?

GARSD: From a government level, there's very little response. And one of the things about this book is that he very much points the finger at the governments of Central America, as well, I mean, what he calls the sheer laziness to organize, and also, just governments that have become bloated off of remittances. So there's not an effort to do that. You know, a good example is, not so long ago - a few months ago - the La Bestia, one of the trains, it derailed. And he pointed that out as an example of - nobody, you know, the representatives from different Central American governments went to visit the site, and there were a lot of public displays of sorrow. But, no, there was not an organization. I mean, what is happening is that you have religious and civil organizations that have stepped up and try to help people and try to offer some protection. But what he points out is, you know, yes, this is illegal transit. This is not sanctioned, but you know what? The fact is it's happening, and hundreds and thousands of people a year are passing through your country. So what he's saying is you need to step up and take care of that situation.

MARTIN: NPR's Jasmine Garsd is speaking with us from Mexico City where she's been reporting. You can hear Jasmine's entire interview with journalist Oscar Martinez in its original Spanish-language version or with English translation on NPR.org/AltLatino. Jasmine, thanks so much for speaking with us.

GARSD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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