Dicing with death on The Beast

Isabel Reviejo – EFE

7 minute read

It's known as La Bestia - or "The Beast" - the cargo train network used by thousands of migrants to cross Mexico on their way to the United States.

AMATLAN DE LOS REYES, Mexico: When "The Beast" rears its head, its whistle sounding, you must not let the adrenalin distract you. Each second counts. One miscalculation could mean death.

Before it arrives, you must start to run. As you gather speed, throwing rapid glances behind you, you must decide which wagon to leap for. When it nears, there is a split second to grab on and find a firm footing on the metal rungs.

"You let it catch you, not the other way round," says Fredy Naun Hernandez, a Honduran who has mastered the art of riding the cargo train network known as La Bestia, or The Beast, used by thousands of migrants to cross Mexico on their way to the United States.

Fredy travels light.

Aside from a few personal care items, his backpack has room for a warm jacket and blanket because "early in the mornings, it is well near freezing."

He doesn't carry any keepsakes. They're "all in my heart," he says, smiling.

This is Fredy's third attempt to complete the journey from his native Honduras to the US. The last time he tried, he was detained in Texas after crossing the waters of Rio Bravo.

This time, he's with his cousin Miguel Angel, and says climbing onto The Beast is "a game of chance, like Russian roulette".

At the tiny Las Patronas shelter in the eastern state of Veracruz - where a mural of the Mexican terrain depicts the travel lines of The Beast as a reminder that "dreams also travel" - Fredy lists his next stops: Mexico City, San Luis Potosi, Saltillo and New Laredo, where he will cross the border to Laredo, Texas.

Many migrants who cross Mexico each year - Amnesty International estimated around 400,000 per year - board freight trains in Tenosique, in the state of Tabasco, or Tapachula, Chiapas.

The arrival points for these people - mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador - once they reach the longed-for northern frontier, vary depending on which routes they choose: the Pacific route to the west, the central route, or the Gulf of Mexico route to the east.

In Tijuana, the Mexican border city just south of California, there is a wall separating it from the United States, but people still slip through. Trying to cross near the border city of Nogales typically means harsh days in the desert. And the eastern route means crossing the Rio Bravo, also known as the Rio Grande.

The Gulf of Mexico route that ends in the state of Tamaulipas is the quickest. But it's also the most dangerous due to the presence of organised crime groups.

The Beast is not the only option to cross Mexico. While Fredy has always covered the distance by train, taking the bus is a much safer option, he says. "Who is going to rob you in the bus?"

But bus travel has its drawbacks. To buy a ticket, you need identification and you risk arrest without it, he adds.

Perched for days on a train roof, or in the spaces between coaches, migrants riding The Beast barely rest. "We sleep along the tracks, spread a blanket and lie down on it, and that's it. And often we sleep in the train," Fredy says.

The danger of falling keeps sleep at bay. Many have been maimed or died that way. Other threats also chase away the prospect of rest. Who else will climb aboard? And what the spot checks carried out by migration authorities.

Fredy points to raids carried out by National Migration Institute agents in the middle of the night. During the last one, a young girl fell from the train and died.

Mexican authorities have stepped up border surveillance under the "Frontera Sur" plan launched in 2014. That same year Secretary of the Interior Miguel Angel Osorio promised a government crackdown to stop migrants travelling by train, citing frequent deaths and even derailments.

But migrants continue to make perilous journeys aboard The Beast.

AMATLÁN (MÉXICO), 04/13/2017 - Migrants travel the freight train called La Bestia, or The Beast, through Mexico on their way to the US and get help from the Patronas. EFE/José Méndez

A few years ago, writer and activist Flaviano Bianchini decided to temporarily part with his Italian passport and ride The Beast, passing himself off as an immigrant with the fake name Aimar Blanco.

During his 21-day journey, which he narrated in his 2016 book El camino de La Bestia (The path of The Beast), the author had a simple mantra: "Don' fall asleep, and don't trust anyone."

Attacks by armed groups are common and migrants could lose their savings long before reaching their destination. Some are forced to work for members of organised crime gangs to pay for the services of "coyotes", or smugglers.

Corrupt security officers aren't far behind in taking advantage of vulnerable migrants. "We were held hostage by the police for two days. Eventually, they did not deport nor arrest us," Flaviano tells EFE.

"We were in jail for two days but they never read out charges against us, nor jotted down our names, nothing."

The migrants were relieved of all their belongings and the episode came to an end when "they probably failed at trying to sell us, and released us," he adds.

The trip is undertaken by all sorts of people from fit, able-bodied young men to pregnant women. Success depends on many factors, not just the physical.

"It is everything, a combination of one's physical condition, mental strength and luck - one also needs a lot of luck," he says.

Then of course there's the money factor. Flaviano points out the Catch-22 situation where "having money makes your journey easier, but having money also means you are actually among those who need the journey less."

Migrants can also encounter "angels" on their route, such as Las Patronas, a dozen women from the village of Guadalupe, part of the Amatlan de los Reyes municipal region. Since 1995, these women have been distributing food and drinks to those travelling aboard The Beast.

Later, they also started taking in those wishing to make a stopover on the way.

Their pink and purple-walled shelter has a homely, happy atmosphere - a sharp contrast to the tragic stories some migrants have to tell.

Maria Guadalupe Gonzalez 'Lupe' remebers how one of them, Cristobal, was on the train with some friends and while passing Las Patronas, he got off and began tossing food packets for them to catch.

Absorbed in the task, he failed to notice the women shouting for him to get back on the train, which was picking up speed.

Cristobal tried a couple of times, but failed to clamber aboard. On the third attempt, The Beast severed one of his feet.

Las Patronas have volunteers who help them quickly reach The Beast when it is heard panting in the distance.

Pushing wheelbarrows, they come with bottled water and boxes of red beans, rice and canned tuna.

Sometimes, a compassionate driver will slow the train to aid the distribution of food, and within about three minutes The Beast is moving away again, toward the north.