Mexican government reclaims control of ‘La Bestia’ for national security

Latin American migrants ride on a train through Mexico toward the U.S. border. (Credit: Marc Silver)

Mexico’s Communications and Transport Ministry is reclaiming ownership of the battered cross-country rail line known as “La Bestia” (“The Beast”), long used by Central American migrants and refugees traveling north toward the U.S. border.

In a statement released last week, the ministry said it had scrapped a concession to the railroad, which had belonged to the Ferrocarriles Chiapas-Mayab rail company, on the grounds of “public interest, public usage and national security.”

Critics of the Mexican government question the statement. Martin Barrón Cruz, an academic who produced a study on the dangers faced by immigrants who travel via “La Bestia,” pointed out that Chiapas-Mayab is one of four companies operating trains that migrants ride northward. Until this changes, he argued, the ministry’s decision to withdraw the concession has nothing to do with national security.

“If the company is unable to prevent people from climbing wagons, it is not just their problem, but the federal government’s,” Barrón told El País.

The ministry has cited economic motivations to regaining control of the Chiapas-Mayab rail route, which begins in the southern state of Chiapas and connects with a network of freight trains that head north. The southern region of Mexico has some of the highest poverty rates in the country, the ministry said in a publication in the Official Journal of the Federation (DOF), but also has important economic potential in petrochemicals, cement, beer and other industries. To tap into this potential, the ministry says it will require an efficient railway to grow and develop the region.

Regardless of ownership, the Chiapas-Mayab rail route has been notoriously mismanaged. Migrants who have ridden atop the train have reported acts of rape, extortion, assaults and murder, as well as cargo theft and even train derailment. Those who do brave the journey on “La Bestia” or other rail lines risk injury or even death if they fall off the train or don’t climb on properly.

“It’s impossible for me to grow back my limbs. That’s impossible,” one Honduran migrant, Jose Luis Hernandez Cruz, told the San Diego Union-Tribune. He fainted atop a train passing through the state of Chihuahua and lost a leg and an arm in the resulting fall. He was just 17 at the time.

“But there are things that are possible. Such as the [Honduran] government showing more concern over this issue. Or putting a stop to the mutilations, the disappearances, the deaths of those who make the journey. Or putting a stop to the raping of the women on these trains,” Hernandez Cruz said.

Central American migrants have been riding atop “La Bestia” and other trains for years, until government agents began raiding the trains in 2014. Since then, the number has dropped by 90 percent.

Still, Central Americans and other migrants arrive by the thousands every year to make the journey north. Fearing government raids and deportation, travelers are now forced to divert their journey through more remote regions – by land or even sometimes by sea – where they face a heightened risk of robbery, rape, abduction and other perils.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com