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  • Writer's pictureLauren Jessop

El tren de la muerte, La Bestia, The Beast; what is it?

Updated: Aug 8, 2022

Freight train
"CSXIvyCity" by NTSBgov

El tren de la muerte (“The Death Train”), also known as La Bestia (“The Beast”) and El tren de los desconocidos (“The train of the unknowns”), refers to a network of Mexican freight trains used by migrants, mainly from Central America, to travel the length of Mexico on their way to the United States.

It is estimated that 400,000 migrants, the majority coming from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, ride atop these trains each year in hopes of reaching the United States. The Mexican freight train system, which transports products and materials, is used as free transportation which allows migrants to avoid Mexico’s immigration checkpoints, but the risks are high.

Mexican train companies prohibit riders on their freight trains, however thousands board, making this rule difficult to enforce.

While traveling on The Beast, migrants take the risk of being kidnapped by smugglers, being robbed, even by corrupt Mexican police, or being beaten, raped, or killed. And, unfortunately, it is very common for people to lose limbs from mishaps while boarding the moving trains, or falling off while on board.

Last week, Customs and Border Protection in South Texas rendered first aid to a female migrant who, when attempting to avoid being arrested for illegal entry, ran for a train, lost her grip, and fell underneath it, resulting in severe foot injuries.

On May 28, Inmigrante Centroamericano’s Facebook page posted about one migrant who was killed, and two that were “mutilated” while riding The Beast.

Over 400 migrants from Central America who have lost limbs due to train injuries have received prosthetic legs, arms, and hands thanks to an International Red Cross program. They are fitted, rehabilitated, some choosing to apply for asylum in the U.S. and others choosing to return to their home country.

Of the hundreds of thousands of migrants that travel The Beast, approximately 5% are unaccompanied minors. To make the trip, Central American children must first cross the border from Guatemala into Mexico. From there, it is 1,450 miles across Mexico to the U.S. border.

The 2009 HBO documentary Which Way Home, which was nominated for an Academy Award, followed several children who were attempting to travel to the U.S. via The Beast. What is astonishing is how many of them leave without even telling their parents. It is a fascinating glimpse into what is driving people to leave their home countries, and the journey that many take, risking their lives in the process.

Many already have at least one parent or family member already in the U.S., and most say they want to make a better life for themselves and their families. Some of their stories are heartbreaking. The children interviewed along the way are mostly boys who are from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, and their ages range from 9 to 17. Some were abandoned by their parents and left to fend for themselves at a very early age.

Although the film is twelve years old, The Beast continues to carry the flow of migrants north towards their dreams of coming to the United States, and from all reports, it does not appear that anything has changed.

There is a sophisticated support system which has developed along the railway routes. As the trains stop at stations, migrants disembark and are oftentimes met by people who run shelters along the sides of the tracks. They are offered showers, food and a place to rest up for the next leg of their journey. There are also organizations that are waiting with food at various points along the way.

In addition, there is Grupo Beta, formed by Mexico’s National Institute of Migration in response to the thousands of migrants crossing its border. They are a mobile humanitarian unit that does not enforce the law. They provide water, medical aid, and information to migrants in need.

In one scene, a “Beta,” as individuals from Grupo Beta are called, speaks to a group of children along the tracks. He tells them that Grupo Beta wants them to travel safely and never to trust smugglers, warning them, “They will kidnap you and then ask for ransom, especially since you are minors. They ask for ransom from your families in the U.S. or in your home country.” He tells them to “Get on the train when it’s stopped. Because many times the train drags you and throws you on the tracks and it’s going to grind you. If it gets the foot it wants to get the leg too.” He shows the children a book with a drawing of a Beta defending young migrants from an assailant and other bits of information meant to help keep them safe.

The kids are shown running to jump on a somewhat slowly moving train which has so many people hanging on to the sides, and sitting on top of it, that it doesn’t seem possible any more will fit.

At one stop, Memo Ramirez Garduza, founder of the shelter, House of Migrants, is standing on a chair addressing a large group of men.

He tells them, “Mexico is the passage of death for you. The freight train can be your best friend because it can help you travel, but it can also be your worst enemy. It can kill you. The United States is not the passage of death, the United States is ‘death itself.’ At the border during the day, temperatures go from 120 up to 140 degrees. And this jug (holding up what looks like a 2 gallon plastic water jug) will not even last you for 3 days of traveling. It is proven at the border, out of every 100 migrants, between 10 and 20 or more will die.”

He continued, “Maybe many of you here will die. Many of you will never see your families again, many of you here will never return to your countries. Because you will die on the way. Now brothers, who really wants to get to the United States? Raise your hand.” Every single person raised their hand.

The film shows families from several countries in which authorities called to inform them their sons had been found dead in the desert months after they left home. The bodies are then returned to them for burial in their home countries.

There are stories of people who fall asleep while on top of the train and end up rolling off by accident, as well as others who are knocked off by branches, or, in one case as explained by one of the kids, two men who were standing when the train went through a tunnel at night and never saw it coming.

Children are left in the hands of smugglers and have been raped and abandoned. Border patrol finds them walking alone in the desert and some have died as a result. In one instance, a 10-year-old boy was sitting on a bench at a detention center sobbing as he explained to a Mexican immigration official that he was handed off to several smugglers, and when the group he was with was in danger of being caught, they left him.

According to USCBP, the number of UACs that crossed the border illegally since the beginning of this fiscal year in October 2020, is 78,513. There have been 30,233 from Guatemala, 20,987 from Honduras, 16,419 from Mexico, 7,514 from El Salvador and 3,360 from ‘other.’

They also note an increase in the amount of people arriving illegally by train. Since October, CBP officers have removed 292 undocumented migrants from trains. That is an increase of more than 60 percent compared to the 181 noncitizens apprehended during the same time period a year ago. In all of fiscal year 2019, CBP officers encountered only 50 people attempting to enter the U.S. without inspection via rail crossings.

The Beast has rightfully earned its name, but that doesn’t seem to stop many people from testing their luck at it.

Originally published on Citizen Stringer June 14, 2021


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