The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail, by Oscar Martínez, Verso, RRP£14.99/$26.95, 298 pages
Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness, by Alfredo Corchado, Penguin Press, RRP$27.95, 304 pages
Waiting for José: The Minutemen’s Pursuit of America, by Harel Shapira, Princeton, RRP£19.95/$27.95, 208 pages
Borders are evocative and often dangerous places, and few more so than the US-Mexico border. At almost 2,000 miles, it is not the longest in the world – that record goes to its northern sister, the US-Canada international boundary. But it is among the busiest – $500bn of goods and more than 60m vehicles cross every year – and certainly one of the most heavily policed.
Most of the US border patrol’s 21,000 agents are deployed there; 10 predator drones watch from the skies while infrared cameras and ground sensors monitor movement on land. The border itself, a third of it fenced, has in places become a near-impregnable fortress that is supposed to stop drugs, violence and migrants heading north, and US arms and narco-dollars heading south. No wonder that President Barack Obama has described the US-Mexico relationship as “like no other in the world”.
Of course, how you feel about the border depends in large part on which side you stand. Straddling it emotionally are the 12m people born in Mexico who currently live in the US – a tension explored by Alfredo Corchado in Midnight in Mexico, a bittersweet reconciliation of his bi-nationalism as well as a gripping exposé of that country’s underground narco-economy. Guarding the border, meanwhile, are the war veterans who maintain a vigil in the Arizona desert and whose lives are explored by Harel Shapira in Waiting for José, an anthropological study of the Minutemen. Last, and most desperate of all, there are the people seeking a better life in el norte across the border, whose experiences are so mortifyingly described by Oscar Martínez in his remarkable book The Beast.
First published in Spain and Mexico in 2010 as Los migrantes que no importan (“The migrants that don’t matter”), The Beast is extraordinary, first, for the courage that Martínez summoned to write it; and, second, for the hidden lives he reveals. No other writer has got this close to a migration that Amnesty International estimates left 70,000 unaccounted for between 2006 and 2012. To put that in a European context, this is almost three times the number estimated to have died trying to reach Italy from north Africa over the past 20 years.
A reporter for Elfaro.net, Latin America’s first online newspaper, Martínez spent two years travelling with undocumented migrants from Central America, through Mexico and into the US. He travelled desolate back trails and eight times rode the infamous “Beast”, a screeching monster of a train that carries thousands of migrants north on its back. He patrolled with US border guards in air-conditioned jeeps to the north, and shared cigarettes with migrants fleeing gang violence in the south.
Auner, a 20-year-old farmhand from El Salvador profiled in the opening chapter as he is about to head north, is trying “hard to keep his fear in check so as to not make a false step”. But as he also tells Martínez, he can only migrate or return home to face certain death: “I’m running …so I don’t get killed.” We never learn Auner’s eventual fate on the migrant trail – only that he suddenly stops answering Martínez’s text messages.
Some quarter of a million Central Americans like Auner make the same trek every year, and it is a fair bet that most know little of its perils. If only they read Martínez’s book. Along the way, they risk being robbed, beaten and kidnapped. They may fall from the top of the Beast, or lose their legs under its wheels if they fumble while jumping on. Any female migrants will probably be raped – according to Amnesty International, six out of 10 are. And all this before even reaching the US border.
Read together, the vivid personal stories told here have the force of a novel, the bravery of the migrants holding up a terrible mirror to the gang violence of Central America, the grotesque institutional breakdown of backcountry Mexico, and the callousness of the US, which once fanned civil wars in Central America and now turns its back on the problems those conflicts helped create. Yet if Martínez feels anger, he does not show it. Instead, his precise, empathetic and often poetic language summons rage and pity but also admiration in the reader.
Alfredo Corchado, Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News since 1994, is hardly less daring than Martínez, just more urban. His view of Mexico and the US border is dominated by the drug barons, investigators, politicians and police whom the furtive migrants hope to sneak past.
Midnight in Mexico opens with a telephone call from a regular informant, who tells Corchado that a drugs cartel has taken out a contract on Corchado’s life. Rather than escape to the US, he follows the lead to see if it is real or a rumour. Written with the pace of a crime thriller, his tenacious reporting provides a revealing portrait of “arguably the most transformative time in Mexico since the revolution of 1910”, while also describing his personal journey to understand it.
To call Corchado a foreign correspondent is perhaps a misnomer. Though raised in the US from the age of seven, he was born in a folkloric village in the state of Durango in northwest Mexico, where an uncle buried his umbilical cord to remind him where he belonged. His migrant worker parents abandoned Durango to open a restaurant in El Paso, four blocks from the border with Ciudad Juárez. When he returns to Mexico as a correspondent, he lives in a big house, waited on by servants in a way his parents never dreamt of.
This binational perspective gives the book its relish – especially for Mexican music, food and drink – and its sureness of touch. Corchado celebrates the success and purpose of the US: “My parents proved my distrust of the US wrong by giving us the possibility of reinvention in a new land.” But he also misses the engagement and urgency of Mexico. “Mexico has always been personal,” he writes.
This sense of Mexico-as-personal-quest comes to a head when his on-off girlfriend calls him one evening at Harvard, where Corchado is enjoying a sabbatical courtesy of a Neiman fellowship. A fellow Mexico crime reporter, she tells him how she has just thrown away her shoes after visiting a blood-soaked crime scene in Ciudad Juárez.
“You did what?” he says, suddenly aware of how he had become “American again: relaxed, callous, self-absorbed. As if coated in Teflon.” Mexico was no longer his problem, he feels for a moment while safely ensconced in Boston. But of course it was, and remains so. “I really always have always been – I still am – in love with Mexico.” Whatever its faults, Mexico is his Ithaca.
On either side of the border, there are the same desert colours, the same sun, the same fence. So it is striking how the emotional temperature drops on the US side, where it is as if the action is viewed through glare-reducing sunglasses from within a comfortably air-conditioned car – as it occasionally is in Waiting for José, an at times touching portrait of a lost American tribe.
There are some 12,000 card-carrying Minutemen and, as border vigilantes, they are a contradictory lot, “sorry-ass gun freaks and sociopaths” to some, “extraordinary men and women …heroes” to others. Mostly white, middle-aged men, they resent being told by automated phone systems “to press 2 for Spanish”, which they take as another sign of America in crisis. Yet they also praise immigrants from Mexico for “their good cultural values”. Shapira, an ethnographer, writes with sensitivity and professional detachment of their nostalgia for a frontier way of life that they feel has gone.
Resolutely opposed to the “open-border lobby”, the Minutemen dread the day when the Arizona desert – “our Gaza” – is turned into a series of gated communities with “fucking Starbucks down here with its grande latte processed bullshit”. The irony is that they spend hours scanning the border with night-vision binoculars, protecting a country that no longer cares for them, carrying guns they cannot legally use against illegal immigrants whom they often admire. The border guards mostly view them as a nuisance.
For all its grimness and broken dreams, the US-Mexico border is also a place of dynamism and hope, so there is optimism to these books too. Waiting for José provides a glimpse into the anger and displacement that helped form the US vigilante movement in the post-9/11 conflation of immigration and terrorism. But it also reveals the Minutemen as the border equivalent of trainspotters, whose interest in the Tea Party or preventing “José” from crossing into the US stems, ultimately, from their desire to participate in a social community that recalls the soldering life for which they were trained.
Julio César, the Honduran migrant portrayed in the closing chapter of The Beast, probably does make it across the Rio Bravo with his wife and young child. He finds a remote spot where shallows make it safer to negotiate the river’s fast currents, and waits for the dry season in order to maximise his chances. For him, as for all those who attempt the crossing, “the difference between knowing and not knowing” is the difference between life and death.
All three books were written when Mexican violence was at a peak. This lawlessness was never generalised, but did capture headlines and help to define the country internationally following the all-out assault on organised crime launched six years ago by the then president Felipe Calderón. Instilling law and order is the kind of structural reform that could dwarf the effects of even the North American Free Trade Agreement, now approaching its 20th anniversary. It is also harder to carry through.
Nonetheless, Mexican authorities are starting to acknowledge the horrors endured by migrants passing through their country. Violence in Ciudad Juárez, the “City of Death”, has fallen dramatically: the murder rate is a quarter of what it was only two years ago. And although the number of Central American migrants continues to rise, more US citizens have been added to Mexico’s population recently than Mexicans have been added to the population of the US. Mexico is certainly changing. Is it unrealistic to hope for the better?
Corchado, who has reported on many false Mexican dawns, closes his book watching a desert sunset. He has spent the afternoon in El Paso at a family reunion, eating and playing with his monoglot English-speaking nephews, swimming in their pool. As the sky darkens over Mexico, he feels a moment of peace and reflects “we are the same geography, one blood, two countries”. His feet in one place, his hopes in another, it is a modern North American dream.
John Paul Rathbone is the FT’s Latin America editor
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published