The Beast

Issue section: 
(385)

Oscar Martinez, Verso, £14.99

The Beast, recently translated into English, is the product of two years of immersion journalism by Oscar Martinez, an award winning Salvadoran journalist. Martinez's accounts of the tens of thousands of undocumented Mexican migrants attempting the perilous journey to the US are moving as well as horrific.

Martinez set off on the journey alongside these undocumented masses, who must choose their path north carefully: clinging to the top of speeding cargo trains - The Beast - at the risk of dismemberment and death; or taking buses through the mountains and walking around checkpoints and barriers, at the risk of arrest and almost certain attack by gangs.

At the end of this gruelling journey to the US border the migrants have to face an impenetrable border wall constructed out of the metal scraps from the Gulf War, patrolled by US agents charged to detain any migrants as "potential terrorists". Rare gaps in this fence lie in some of the harshest deserts in the world and are shared both by migrants and by Narcos - drug traffickers.

Throughout their arduous journey migrants are vulnerable to forced prostitution and human trafficking, and are at the mercy of bandits, who rob and rape migrants. Those who are most unlucky get sucked into "the kidnap express" of extortion.

Martinez visits Mexican cities and provinces which are controlled by gangsters - no one crosses or operates in these areas without their permission and a special tax. To cross these powerful forces could mean execution or kidnapping.

One of the most interesting notions implicit in this book is that the situation in Mexico is not some alien failure - it is capitalism, simply in a more extreme form than we are used to. It is an indictment of nationalism and how it dehumanises those who are on the outside. These migrants are bought and sold for the profit of the shady powers, the pimps and the gang leaders that run the trails and the economy around them.

This book accurately and faithfully gives voice to the voiceless masses of Central America. With the unique perspective of a journalist foreign to Mexico, Martinez is able, without fear of the threats posed to local journalists, to shine a light on an unspoken problem.

Martinez's account has some limitations. This is not a journalist's story, but that of thousands of migrants. If Martinez were to take the role of a protagonist as well as a narrator, simply by talking about himself a little, he would have given a better understanding as to how he managed this investigation unscathed.

The description of scenery and geography lacked clarity and vividness, which could perhaps have been helped with maps and photographs. However, while these flaws did lessen the extent to which we are able to immerse ourselves in the journey, they do not harm the profound impact of the book's content.