The evening news in Mexico regularly features footage of a ramshackle freight train known as La Bestia (The Beast) making its way across the country bearing a cargo of illegal immigrants trying to reach the United States's southern border. One can see hundreds of men, women and children perched on the roof, crammed between the boxcars, clinging to the sides. The trains are loaded with cement, iron, quartz, wheat, corn, diesel, vegetable oil, fertilizer, or wood, but the human cattle along for the ride have no food, drink or guarantee of safety.
To reach the depot at Arriaga, in the state of Chiapas, across the border from Guatemala, from which La Bestia departs every two or three days, migrants walk for days, even skirting mountains to avoid immigration checkpoints and roadblocks. The U.S. border is two weeks from here on the back of the Beast. Along the way pregnant women, mothers with infants, teenagers and adults will sleep on the streets or, if lucky, in makeshift or more permanent church-run shelters. During the long journey, accidents often happen, and passengers tumbling off the roof have their limbs severed. An aid group in Honduras has counted more than 450 migrants who have returned mutilated. Derailments are common, with cars flying off the tracks, leading to injuries and death.
Murders, muggings, extortions, gang rapes of women and kidnappings (some 20,000 a year) are committed by the rapidly expanding Central American Mara Salvatrucha gangs or by Mexican drug traffickers such as the bloodthirsty Zetas. They often infiltrate the groups of travelling migrants on the trains or in shelters, selling them drugs, tricking girls into prostitution, luring boys into gangs or murdering perceived informers. And at each stop, the migrants are prey to local police, who demand bribes up to several hundred dollars a head in exchange for allowing them to continue on their way.
At crowded safe houses along the Beast's route, the migrants' smugglers may coach their charges in how to reply to questioning or fake a Mexican accent. Forged birth certificates and other documents are available at a price, either to migrants or to their traffickers. Everyone knows the road to the American dream runs through the Mexican nightmare and that many passengers on "the train of death" will either perish during the journey, disappear by the wayside or be wounded, robbed or mutilated.
Who reaps the profits from La Bestia? Why do officials turn a blind eye while thousands of women are trafficked inside Mexico or abroad? What laws are broken to allow the transport of undocumented aliens across the country by tri-national smugglers acting as travel agents, risking lives and creating a humanitarian crisis? How much do the railroad engineers charge? Human despair has been turned into a commodity, a flourishing business for illicit enrichment.
The Bestia line once belonged to Genesee & Wyoming Inc., which bought the 1,119-mile Ferrocarriles Chiapas-Mayab freight concession in 1999 during the presidency of Ernesto Zedillo, when the government-owned Ferrocarriles Nacionales was privatized. After the havoc wrought on the track by Hurricane Stan in 2005, GWI sought to end its 30-year concession and suspend freight service. The government threatened sanctions and transferred service to the semi-public Ferrocarril del Istmo de Tehuantepec, and after years of legal wrangling, extended the latter's concession to fifty years. The concession clearly states that it is for carrying freight, not passengers, so the company is in constant violation of the law.
These days many migrants prefer to take a bus and risk detection at a checkpoint, where a payoff may allow them to continue. Others are crammed into airless trucks for the trip north. A former National Migration Institute agent reported that the going fee at each checkpoint for a truckload of migrants is around $20,000 dollars, divvied up "fairly" among the employees. Coyotes and polleros (literally "chicken herders") charge upwards of $5,000 dollars per migrant to shepherd him or her across the U.S. border.
For years refugees have started their journey north by crossing the Suchiate River, the border between Guatemala and Ciudad Hidalgo, in Chiapas. Lately the number of unaccompanied children who pay $1.50 to cross on an inner-tube raft has grown, as has the business that services them. Three ad hoc unions control the crossing, and the rafters, who are also money changers, are on call 7/24 for U.S.-bound migrants or mere shoppers, as well as for running drugs, guns and cash. A Catholic priest working with migrants estimates that 60 percent of the underage children come from Honduras, mostly driven out by extortion or running from gang recruitment. These thousands of migrant children, some barely able to understand Spanish due to their Indian heritage, have been an easy prey.
In Tapachula, half an hour's drive from the border, up to 1000 migrants are held at a time (or "lodged," in official parlance) at the Siglo XXI Migratory Station prior to being repatriated (read: "deported"). Mexico deports 250,000 foreigners a year to Central America. Meanwhile countless girls, young women and boys who have been sold into prostitution are working in Tapachula, which the founder of the Center for Investigation and National Security has compared to Sodom and Gomorrha. Elsewhere in Mexico, corpses of migrants have been found with their organs harvested.
Smugglers have been spreading false rumors about lenient U.S. policies to drum up business for themselves, convincing parents that after their children turn themselves into the Border Patrol, they will be allowed to remain in the country if they can furnish the name of a relative already in the U.S. More than 52,000 unaccompanied minors have been apprehended at the border since the start of the year, more than twice last year's total of 24,000.
Chronic illegal migration and trafficking of persons can only be tackled if the U.S., Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala work together on combatting the underlying causes: a reign of terror and violence imposed by organized crime, relentless poverty in the migrants' home countries, lack of opportunities and employment, and weak law enforcement and corruption at the official level. Family businesses close as owners can no longer pay off the criminals who threaten them, and even street vendors have to hand over some of their earnings. Teenagers face a future of gangs, prostitution, and drugs. Perhaps the time has come for a Central American Marshall Plan. And what about UNICEF, and the UN Refugee Program?
The situation is very complex. What are the options? Deporting 52,000 children, at least two thirds from Central American countries embroiled in violence tantamount to civil war, to become victims of gangs or sex slaves, with slim chances of survival? They are war refugees and deserve treatment guaranteed by international agreements to which the U.S. is a signatory. Or allowing them to join family members already in the United States, legally or not, sending a message that this is the way to go? And turn the U.S. border into Lampedusa?
The Obama administration has not looked south of the border at failing states. Human rights experts estimate that 10,000 undocumented immigrants are kidnapped every year during their passage through Mexico. Mexico is legally obliged to guarantee the safety of these migrants. Should Mexico close down the border crossing at the Suchiate River?
Hondurans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans escape from hell, journeying through the limbo of Mexico to be held in the purgatory of shelters at the U.S. border, always striving towards the paradise of rejoining family members in the promised land.
Is it morally acceptable -- or even legal -- to send thousands of children back to hell? Mr. Obama, while you ride in the comfort and safety of The Beast (as the Secret Service calls the armored presidential limousine), give some thought to the hopeful passengers on the Bestia.