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Q&A with Oscar Martinez, Author of ‘The Beast’

Martinez talks about the three years he spent dodging organized crime and reporting on the hidden life of Central American migrants.


In 2009, Salvadoran journalist Oscar Martinez published a series of urgent, vividly written on-the-ground dispatches from migrant shelters, towns devoured by the feared Los Zetas and from the belly of the infamous La Bestia — the rusted freight train Central American migrants cling to on their journey north to the United States.

Published in installments in Spanish on the award-winning Salvadoran news site, Martinez’s harrowing stories provided a window into what Mexican journalist Alma Guillermoprieto calls “the world’s most invisible people”— a mass of humanity on the move year-after-year fleeing poverty, violence and often their own government. People searching for a safe harbor where they can live a dignified life in peace.

After reading Martinez’s courageous reporting it’s a wonder anyone—including the author —survives the journey. The 30-year-old journalist spent three years with a team of Spanish photographers documenting the violence, desperation and the small victories and hopes of migrants dodging kidnappers and armed gunmen in Central America and Mexico only to reach an 18-foot wall, drones and armed U.S. agents at the U.S.-Mexico border. In 2010, Martinez compiled his stories into a book Los migrantes que no importan [The migrants who don’t matter] published by Icaria and El Faro. Beast, The_300dpi_CMYK

Now we’re lucky to have Martinez’s astonishing work translated into English in his newly released book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail published by Verso Books. Martinez will be traveling across the United States on a book tour this month (so far, no dates in Texas). A staff writer for El Faro, Martinez runs a special investigative project called, “Sala Negra,” which focuses on gang violence and organized crime in Central America and Mexico. I spoke with Martinez recently about his crucial work, the plight of immigrants and the release of his new book The Beast.

Texas Observer: First of all congratulations. It’s great to see your book translated into English, finally.

Oscar Martinez:  I think the ultimate fate of this book was to be published in the United States because it’s a way to tell people—many people—how hard it was for their workers, their gardeners or factory employees to be able to reach the United States. So that was very important for me.

TO: What do you hope Americans will learn from your book?

OM: I believe the worst tragedies along the path—the rapes, the mass kidnappings, the torturing done by Los Zetas, the fee to cross the border—are things that the migrants who have suffered them, in my experience, don’t even tell their own families. I’m convinced that it’s something they don’t tell their employers or their friends if they have any friends in the United States. I think people in the U.S. know that migrants have a long and hard journey. But I’m convinced that the country in which they work—where they cut tomatoes and clean houses—has no idea at all that what the migrants are going through is actually a humanitarian crisis. In other words, it’s a humanitarian crisis where organized crime takes care of extracting the very last drop it can from people who are already leaving their country with practically nothing.

TO: Why did you decide to write this book?

OM: I could give you a bunch of different reasons and say it’s because I’m from Central America, etc., but I really wrote it because I felt like I had a journalistic obligation. When I worked as a freelancer in Mexico, I did an investigation—with my brother, who is also a reporter and works at El Faro with me—for a magazine called Gatopardo and we were working on an article about undocumented people who cross Mexico. When we saw what was happening to them—I’m talking about six or seven years ago, but especially when we saw that no one was doing anything, that there were no reporters in the area writing about it, we realized it was necessary to do something.

This was the underground Mexico—along the railroad tracks, and in the small towns and ejidos—we realized how complex the whole thing was because in the world of Mexican migration you have many characters—the Zetas, the coyotes, corrupt police officers. So when we realized the complexity of it I decided to stay on that path for three years exclusively traveling like an undocumented migrant through stretches, seeing what happened to the migrants, visiting those places that I think society as a whole had forgotten about. The massacre of migrants in Mexico began well before the massacre of migrants in Tamaulipas [in 2010]—people simply didn’t pay attention the way they do now.

TO: What year did you start your investigation and how long did it take to write the book?

OM: I started dedicating myself exclusively to this topic at the beginning of 2008 and my last excursions were in 2010. I still visited Mexico to travel some stretches via train—especially in Oaxaca and Veracruz. However, during that time I was already dedicated primarily to writing and editing the book. I edited the book in Barcelona—I had nine months to perfect the book, edit it, and modify some parts. Some stories had already been published, most of them at El Faro. But we dedicated ourselves to creating a new story, called “Living Among Coyotes”—we told the story of some characters that we had already introduced and we’d already known about their ending, along with Roberto Valencia, an editor and colleague in the Basque country.

We worked together for nine months perfecting the material under one principle: For journalism to be effective, it has to be well written. And overall under an ethical principle: If there are people like migrants who took the time to tell you their story aboard the train, who delayed their journey one day to stay at this shelter and talk to you, if there are women who had the courage to tell how a few hours ago they’d been raped along the path, you as a journalist don’t have the right to just spit that back out onto a page. You have to take the time, dedicate energy and put in a lot of work to write this the best way you can so that that person’s story can generate the feeling of impotence, the rage, the compassion and the hate that it should generate.

I think that writing is an ethical responsibility. When I write about these migrants, who I care about, it’s written with all the tools of literature so that I can get the reader’s attention, but it’s nonfiction—everything is true, everything happened and everything was verified. There were two editors, a process of double editing to do fact-checking and Roberto Valencia was ultimately the architect, as editor, who ensured the material was strung together in that way.

TO: It’s such a difficult and painful journey for many of the migrants. I imagine it was also incredibly difficult and dangerous for you to do the reporting?

OM: There are many scenes that were very complicated. Well, the most stressful coverage in the book—where we realized we were in an area where the state was not in control, where it was clear that organized crime had total and complete power – was for a story in the book called “We Are the Zetas.”

For that article, which we did in a region that borders Guatemala called Tenosique (in the Mexican State of Tabasco), we realized the impotence the migrants must feel when they pass through an area where the Zetas are masters of all, and on the other hand, the inexplicable courage that some people have—like the priests who work in that area, there’s a very famous one they call Fray Tormenta [Father Storm] who have, as a colleague put it, the vocation of loving God in Zetaland, which is very different from loving God from a post at a school, or from a church where you give mass every Sunday.

We realized there were some people who despite everything were ready to beat this problem. But it’s overwhelming the amount of power the Zetas have. They knew we were there and we had to leave the place. And one of the first massacres (of migrants) that I found out about had occurred there—the massacre that happened at a ranch close to a town called Gregorio Mendez. In that place you can tell that Mexico has decided to forget about certain areas, through which these people who can’t vote, who can’t sue, who don’t turn to the police and file reports because they believe the police are their enemies, pass through. And Mexico has decided to turn the other way and ignore the places through which these people pass and you realized the overwhelming degree of control and power that such a violent and retrograde organization can have.

TO: Are you still writing about migrants and their plight?

OM: Yes, right now I’m the coordinator at El Faro of a project called Sala Negra. In Sala Negra we write primarily about three topics: organized crime in Central America—Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—gangs, and the culture of violence: examining why we have such violent societies accustomed to so much death.

Since January 2011, I’ve been dedicated to coordinating a group of journalists for “Sala Negra.” My beat is organized crime, and migration has never stopped being part of my beat. Right now I’m working on a story about the networks of coyotes and all that has changed ever since Los Zetas took control of the networks of coyotes in Mexico. Ever since the big groups of organized crime began to play a significant role in migration there has been a huge link with organized crime, which is my beat. We think that in 2014 or 2015 we will return to the road to do a second part of the project.

TO: There are many people from Central America coming to Texas now. They are traveling through the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which is very dangerous, yet there are more Central Americans coming than ever before.

OM: It’s inexplicable, in some ways, the double standard that the U.S. has with this topic. Because the U.S. sounds the alarm when they know there’s a region along the border where a big drug shipment is going through—and yet they don’t care at all about gathering intelligence and talking about how organized crime also serves as a border wall so that migrants don’t come through. That is to say, it seems as though the activity of organized crime—charging migrants a fee, breaking their ankles when they don’t pay the fee on the border—it seems as though Americans don’t care about organized crime.

I’ve never heard the American president or the secretary of Homeland Security or anyone from Border Patrol—I’ve never heard them talk about how organized crime in Mexico is attacking migrants. And I suppose this silence is due to the fact that this activity on the part of organized crime doesn’t bother them. Because if they know and they have the intelligence to know when and how big drug shipments are being moved across the border, they also must have information to know that those same groups torture migrants who are trying to cross into the United States.

So it seems to be like a double standard to denounce the drug trafficking routes and to complain to Mexico about that, but not to even bring up this giant problem. It seems like the U.S. doesn’t care at all that there are Central American and Mexican migrants that are being tortured on the doorstep of the United States.