It is unbelievable how, in every corner of the world, migrants are cynically exploited without receiving in exchange the dignity they are looking for when they decide to leave their country of origin to reach the promised land. They call it “The Beast,” the freight train that crosses the boundary between Mexico and the United States, a train that thousands of desperate migrants cling to in order to get across the border.
“The Beast” is also the title of a book by Oscar Martinez, a Salvadoran writer, one of the most notable among the new generation of Latin American writers. “The Beast” is the painstaking and heartbreaking story of how South American criminal organizations and the U.S. government make fodder of the poor souls who decide to cross the border, without any possibility of extracting themselves from a fate in which they will forever be the victims. The first interesting thing that Martinez told me is that, to a certain extent, the new generation of South American writers has decided to dedicate itself to the nonfiction novel as the main route to recounting reality. Commentary is not enough; narrative is not enough — tell the story, investigate the facts and attack them with narrative style. When I asked him what his literary influences were, he quoted Rodolfo Walsh and Marcela Turati. The Latino literary past has come to be regarded not with suspicion or contempt, but rather as something that no longer has anything to do with their journey. Enough of magical realism, enough of “deformed reality.” Oscar Martinez said something that I fully support: “In narrative commentary there is something more than working on style or seeking sensationalism, as in a fiction book. Narrative commentary is investigation and rigor.”
In 2014, 60,000 minors crossed the border between Mexico and Texas, most being not Mexican — there are laws that exist between the U.S. and Mexico that regulate the immigration of minors — but coming instead largely from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, and so they could not immediately be repatriated. The U.S. authorities needed to initiate proceedings in order to send them back to their parents or, in the meantime, place them with foster families. Obviously, 98 percent of the time, minors who get across the border do not show up in court. In the face of my confusion about the existence of a law made to be broken, Martinez gave me his own interpretation. According to him, the United States requires select manual labor. The border between Mexico and the United States, he told me, is completely barricaded and virtually impossible to get through illegally; however, there nonetheless exists a small section of the border along the boundary with Chihuahua where it is possible to reach the United States by walking for nine nights in a row in the desert, without finding water or respite. According to Oscar Martinez, this section of the border is left open on purpose in order to make a natural selection among migrants — only the strongest will arrive in the states. If you are sick, old or not resilient enough, it will be the desert that kills you, the harshest selector of workers.
Republicans accuse Barack Obama of being the person most responsible for this wave of minors who reach the United States every year; and yet, there is no easy solution as there are entangled interests everywhere. Latin American organized crime has built its own fortune on migrants, just as the Mediterranean migrant traffickers have built theirs on the backs of those who wish to reach Italian shores in search of the genuine possibility of life far from war, exploitation and dictatorships.
In these violent countries – especially Honduras and El Salvador, where organized crime by now controls everything – governments continue to talk about street gangs and factions, and never about the mafia. This is why I urge you to read “The Beast,” in order to understand, in depth, exactly what the beast is: the death train, the devourer of migrants. And when they jump on it, when after various attempts they finally succeed in grabbing hold, they cannot get distracted or fall asleep for fear of mutilation or worse, death. This is the story of migrants everywhere — they seek peace and dignity, and they find exploitation and death. Next time, before applauding Buonanno and Salvini,* think about this.
*Translator’s note: Gianluca Buonanno and Matteo Salvini are two Italian Members of the European Parliament known for their anti-immigrant stance.