This is an excerpt of The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail, written by Óscar Martínez and translated by John Washington and Daniela Ugaz. To read an interview with the author, please click here.
Chapter 5: Kidnappings Don’t Matter: Veracruz, Tabasco, Oaxaca
It’s this tremendous problem that brings us back to the beginning. The reports we did in these three states changed the coming year for us. We realized that no longer were assaults and rapes concealed, confined to isolated corners of the country. We realized that the problem was going beyond migrants mutilated by the train. We realized that machetes had given way to assault rifles, that remote mountaintops had given way to safe houses, that your everyday delinquent had joined Los Zetas, that robbery had turned into assaults and abductions. The scale had changed, but the authorities were the same, and the migrants kept coming without anyone but robbers and kidnappers even glancing in their direction.
It was raining in Tenosique, the small border city in Tabasco, when El Puma and his four gunmen walked up and down the rails demanding money from all the stowaway migrants. It was the last Friday of October. The torrential rain had stalled the trains and some 300 undocumented migrants piled into the muddy shoulders of the tracks.
El Puma is a thirty-five-year-old Honduran with a nine- millimeter in his belt and a cuerno de chivo (goat horn), the Mexican nickname for an AK-47, hanging off his shoulder. His crew, all Honduran and each with a machete and a cuerno de chivo, surrounded him. El Puma’s turf stretches over the entirety of jungle-shrouded Tenosique, nestled between Petén, in Guatemala, the Chiapan jungle, the Lacandona. People who know him say, baldly, “He works for Los Zetas.”
You have to pay him to get onto the train. Those who don’t pay don’t go. Those who resist get to meet him, his crew, his machetes, and his cuerno de chivo.
Most of the migrants paid. Those who didn’t have the money went around to beg for it. Then El Puma radioed the driver of the next train to hit the brakes in Tenosique so he could catch up with him and give him his cut. The migrants piled on top of the wagons or on their lower balconies. Four polleros1 rode atop the middle train car, tightly surrounded by a score of clients. Most of the migrants were Honduran, along with a few Guatemalans and Salvadorans. You could count the Nicaraguans on one hand. Everyone besides the group riding the middle car traveled on their own, without a pollero.
It kept raining. The train crept forward, leaving Tenosique behind and digging into the thick of the jungle that was only seldom interrupted by cattle ranches. There was still no sign of a town or highway.
After arriving to Pénjamo, one of the many ranches in this part of the country, the trip got a lot harder. José, a twenty-nine- year-old Salvadoran, was the first to notice the eight men taking advantage of how slowly the train was creeping. They clambered on. “No worries,” they said to José’s group, “we ’re headed to El Norte.” But José’s forebodings were confirmed when he saw that after they’d rested a few minutes, four of them took out nine- millimeter pistols, four more unwrapped machetes, and they all put on ski masks.
“See ya,” they said and left the Salvadorans in peace, jumping onto the next car. When the masked men got to the car that Arturo, a forty-two-year-old Nicaraguan cook, was riding, their group had already kidnapped two women. One of them stood out to Arturo because of her white skin. He said he can still remember her face. He thought she was cute. The other woman he couldn’t see well.
The first to be murdered was a Honduran man who traveled with Arturo. He sat perched on one of the train’s hanging bal- conies. From the roof one of the masked men reached down and pressed a gun to his head. He handed over one hundred pesos, but the gunman didn’t believe that that was all he had, and he hopped down to Arturo’s balcony to inspect. More money was found in his sock. The failed trick cost the man his life. “You’re done, you son of a bitch,” the assailant said, and shot him through the neck.
The next car was the polleros’. There was a prolonged silence, followed by gunshots. Some fifteen minutes of sporadic gunshots. The polleros were fighting back. They had forked out the money, but refused to hand over a woman. One masked man fell off the slowing train. And even though he looked dead when he rolled off the uneven rails, his pals quickly jumped off to help. No one knows what happened to the woman Arturo thought so pretty. In the end the polleros won the battle, forcing the thugs off the train.
Revenge came, however, in the city of Palenque, about thirty miles north of Pénjamo. Five of the assailants came back for the polleros’ migrant woman. They killed another Honduran, again in Arturo’s car, hacking through his stomach with a machete and throwing him off the train. But they had to shield themselves from the polleros’ fire. This battle as well the polleros won.
The assailants, though, hadn’t given up yet. By nightfall they’d caught up. They moved quickly, speeding ahead of the train that, a half hour after the second shooting, stopped in an area known as La Aceitera. The dark of night was interrupted by the glow of town lights. The train picked up its new cargo. The sound of steel against steel piercing into the windy night. All the migrants stood, looking every which way. Something was about to happen, we could feel it. Then gunshots. The polleros were forced to give up their car and finally left the woman in the hands of the masked men. They dragged her down and into the nearby forest. But their new loot left the assailants falsely self-assured, and they turned
their backs on the train. The polleros wanted revenge. They hopped off the train, shot another assailant dead, got the woman back and got onto the train before it took off. Then, minutes later, once the crime scene was out of sight, the polleros and their twenty pollos abandoned the train to look for another way north. It was obvious those assailants would come back for more.
And they did. In Chontalpan, about twenty miles north of La Aceitera, three white vans surrounded the rails: one in front of the train, another keeping up beside us, the third behind. Without any polleros to put up a fight, the rest of the migrants ditched the train.
“It was Los Zetas,” Arturo says. “It was Los Zetas,” José says.
It was Los Zetas.
The train emptied. Hundreds of people ran into the pastures to hide, pursued by some fifteen armed men. During the stampede at least one migrant went down, shot dead. Many were hurt. Three women were held at gunpoint in one of the vans.
Mission accomplished, the vans left. The train started chug- ging. The remaining migrants climbed back on, resuming their journey toward Coatzacoalcos and Tierra Blanca, both cities in the state of Veracruz, Zetas home territory. A place of mass kidnappings. The worst was still to come.
los zetas’ other business
The history of the beleaguered train that left from Tenosique could be a manual for anyone who wants to understand the current plight of migrants in Mexico. The manual tells the story of why this region has become the worst leg of an already extremely dangerous journey.
The defenders of migrants who live in these parts pray that somebody does something to improve the situation. They gestic- ulate, ask us to turn off our recorders and put away the cameras, and then they describe what everybody here knows: that every day Los Zeta and their allies kidnap tens of undocumented Central Americans, in the broad light of day, and that the migrants are kept in safe houses which everybody, including the authorities, knows about.
The business logic of the kidnappers is sound: it ’s more prof- itable to kidnap forty people, each of whom will pay between
$300 and $1,500 in ransom money, than it is to extort a local busi- ness owner who might alert the press or the police. The national authorities, including a unit of the National Commission of Human Rights (NCHR) that is investigating migration, admit the gravity of the problem.
These are the kidnappings that don’t matter. These are the victims who don’t report the crimes they suffer. The Mexican gov- ernment registered 650 kidnappings in the year 2008, for example. But this number reflected only reported cases. Time spent on the actual migrant routes proves that such numbers are a gross under- statement. It would not be an exaggeration to say that in any stop along the migrant trail, in just a single month, there are as many kidnappings as the official national figure for the year. In the first six months of 2009, the NCHR visited Veracruz to record testimo- nies of kidnapped migrants and logged as many as 10,000 cases, claiming that if they had had more personnel the figure would be twice or three times as high.
There is, simply put, nobody to assure the safety of migrants in Mexico. Sometimes a week or more will pass before a migrant on the trail will have the chance or the money to call a family member. Migrants try to travel the paths with the fewest authorities and, for fear of deportation, almost never report a crime. A migrant passing through Mexico is like a wounded cat slinking through a dog kennel: he wants to get out as quickly and quietly as he can.
After the attack on the train, where there were more than a hundred armed assaults, at least three murders, three injuries, and three kidnappings, there was not a single mention of the inci- dent in the press. Neither the police nor the army showed up, and nobody filed a single report. Tenosique is the launching point. Then migrants run the gaunt- let of Coatzacoalcos, Medias Aguas, Tierra Blanca, Orizaba, and Lechería. Then the last tolls, the border cities themselves, Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo. These are the stops along the kid- napping route. All of them, except Lechería, which is outside of Mexico City, are on the Atlantic coast, and all of them, accord- ing to the crime map of the Antinarcotics Division of Mexico, are dominated by Los Zetas.
From the capital city to the migrant hostels in the south, there is no doubt that people know what ’s going on. Mauricio Farah of the NCHR explains: “The migrant situation is complex and alarming. The number of kidnappings is booming. And they’re happening, even to large groups of migrants, in broad daylight. The kidnappers show up with guns and simply take people away. The Mexican government is supposed to be responsible for the safety and the lives of those who are in its territory. It ’s incredible that this is continuing to happen.”
NCHR has often reminded the state of what is happening, but the authorities continue to deny or simply not respond to official complaints. The word “kidnapping” has lost its weight in Mexico. The tangle of normalized, constant violence is complex and con- fusing, and now even the polleros have to submit to its rules.
the p o l l e r o tax
Though hundreds of thousands of Central Americans pour into Mexico each year—Mexico’s National Institute of Migration esti- mates 250,000 annually—those who walk this road know each other: Los Zetas know the polleros, the polleros know the assail- ants, the assailants know who works at migrant shelters, and those who work at the migrant shelter know the municipal authorities.
Ismael—a fictional name—is a local and has worked at the nearby migrant shelter for two years now. Previously he had a gig that forced him to get to know the inner workings of organized crime.
He looks for a table apart from the others and points with his chin, “Let ’s talk over there. It ’s just that so many of the informants for these kidnapping groups pose as migrants, and often they’re Central Americans themselves. They listen in on migrants’ con- versations and then find a good moment to ask them if they have family on the other side, if they have anyone to pay for the pollero on the border. If the migrants answer no, they tell their boss to look out for so-and-so who won’t have anyone looking after them. Easy prey.”
“What else can I tell you?” he asks.
“I’ve got eight testimonies of kidnappings that happened in eight different places. Each of the victims said that the kidnappers identified themselves as Zetas. You think it was really them?”
“Not necessarily. It goes like this: no one can say they’re a Zeta without permission. A lot of them, though, are just local delinquents who work for Los Zetas, who make sure that the pol- leros pay their dues,” he tells me, his face not breaking from its steady glare.
I’ve known him for a few months now, and the only parts of his face I’ve ever seen move are his lips. The constant roar of the shelter doesn’t turn his head. A group of migrants are shower- ing, others are washing their clothes, some are playing soccer while the nearby trains squeal, their cars shifting from side to side. Ismael looks on with his steady gaze as though absorbing everything. At times, without pausing from what he ’s saying, he moves his eyes, following an undocumented migrant move across the shelter. He comes off as stoic, and yet he ’s willing to talk, to describe the inner workings of orchestrated kidnappings. He ’s been surrounded by abductors, as well as their victims, for two years now nonstop. He ’s even dodged the bullets of a few assail- ants who tried to kill him after he chased their car, trying to save a kidnapped Nicaraguan woman.
“What dues?” I ask.
“This all comes from way up, all the way from the northern border in Tamaulipas. There ’s someone by the name of El Abuelo up there. He ’s the guy who controls all the polleros passing through his turf. I know he ’s in business with Los Zetas. He pays some sort of tax so that his polleros can work here, down south. And Los Zetas have people to make sure that whoever isn’t paying isn’t getting through.”
“And the kidnappings?”
A migrant comes over to us, and picks up his backpack, which sits on our table. Ismael looks at him out of the corner of his eye. He waits to respond until the man leaves.
“It started as something against the polleros who didn’t pay. They’d take away their pollitos, their little chicks, and since they already had them in their hands they figured they’d go ahead and get a ransom from their families in the US through a fast deposit from Western Union. And then it got to be a habit. They started picking up any migrant who walked alone.”
“When did all this start?”
“We started recording victims’ testimonies in the middle of
At the end of the conversation Ismael tells me that polleros often pass by the shelter. “They can give you more details,” he says.
The sun begins setting, everything dimming to orange by the time a pollero shows up. Ismael points him out to me. He keeps them in check and knows their every movement, but says that he can’t introduce him to me. A relationship between migrant shelter workers and polleros would look very suspicious. Instead he gets someone else to introduce us.
“So, you’re a journalist?” the pollero asks.
“Yeah, and I know you were kidnapped by Los Zetas six months ago in Tierra Blanca. I just want you to tell me a bit about it. You don’t have to give me your name.”
With a sideways nod he signals me over to a mango tree. The tree is some twenty yards from the rails, across a wire fence in a large empty wasteland lot. We jump the fence and sit beneath the tree.
“Nowadays I only lead people through the Tapachula route [on the Pacific coast], because Los Zetas are on the other side and they already got me once.”
“That ’s what I want to talk about.”
“Yeah, well, one has to have a sort of boss up in El Norte so that they can let Los Zetas know that you’re okay, that no one should touch you, but that time my cell wasn’t charged so I couldn’t make the call to my boss, which is when they ganged up on me and hauled me into their car. I was guiding six people. They asked me who I worked for. I told them, but they didn’t believe me. Then they tortured me, burning my back with cigarettes.”
When he ’s sure no one ’s watching, he lifts his dirtied white shirt as if to say, here ’s the evidence. I see six round scars.
“What happened after they tortured you?”
“They asked for money. I had to cough up because if I didn’t they’d take away my migrants. I knew those people, we were close. They were two Guatemalans and four Salvadorans from Santa Ana. If I didn’t pay, I knew they’d kidnap and torture them. Anyone who says they don’t have anyone in the States to send money gets burned. I know people who’ve had fingers and ears cut off. And plenty of them just get killed.”
“And how do you know it was them?”
“People say it ’s not them. They say they’re gangs of nobodies, just delinquents who work for them. The real Zetas control these guys from the northern border.”
The pollero says he found out how this all works in January. If it ’s true, then he and the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs found out at about the same time. The bureau’s report, published that same month, stated that Los Zetas charge polleros for the use of their turf.
“And your boss, what would he have done had you been able to call him?”
“He would ’ve paid to get everyone released.”
“And these bosses are in contact with Los Zetas, with the infa- mous El Abuelo?”
“I’ve heard people talk about him. He ’s in control of the Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa turfs. He ’s one of the ones that pay the tax. But there are other big guys like that—El Borrado, Don Tono, Fidel. You risk a lot as a pollero. Because if the boss doesn’t let everyone know that you’re going, then everything gets thrown your way and you’re fucked. They kidnap you, maybe even kill you. There ’s been a lot of murders. One guy got killed in Coatzacoalcos, and another in Rigo and another in some place called Las Anonas. The ones in charge of oversight go by train, many are Central American. The one who gave me away was Honduran. He got on the train at Medias Aguas.”
“How does it work? How much does the boss have to pay?” “He pays 10,000 dollars a month and he has to let everyone
know that you work for him and how many ‘chicks’ you have with you. Then no one can touch you. This all started last year, first in Coatzacoalcos, and then they took over Tierra Blanca in the beginning of January because they know that that ’s where the two routes merge.”
He ’s referring to the two main railways, the one that borders the Atlantic coast and the one that goes upcountry, closer to the Pacific.
The pollero is nervous. He smiles, purses his lips, smiles again. He doesn’t stop moving his hands and feet. A lot of polleros are addicted to cocaine, amphetamines, or caffeine pills that they use to stay awake through the night.
“What about the police?”
“They’re all connected! That time they got me there were police watching and they didn’t do a thing. After that I’ll never work for anyone. That ’s why I don’t guide people anymore. Because if they see me again, I know I’m dead.”