‘Sueño Americano’ is the culmination of two years of research and three trips to the Mexico and the United States. The project investigates migration across Mexico using a network of freight trains, referred to simply as ‘La Bestia’ (The Beast). The main outcome of this project is a 60,000 word book exploring the personal stories and greater political and historical implications of the Latin American migrant trail in Mexico to the US. The book is being produced together with a number of academic collaborators and is fully Stanford referenced complete with illustrations, photography, field work and interviews with academics and professionals surrounding the subjects explored.
As well as the book, the project was also crafted into an exhibition including a film, soundbites, objects, photos and text, which attempts to function as a kind of ‘forensic archive’, as well as giving visual insight into the projects field work. The archive itself presents both the physical and the contingent, forming fragmented stories strung together by the viewers imagination. The purpose of the project, as well as exploring the politics surrounding Central American migration, is to attempt to blur the lines of reportage and the aesthetics of art to create a more critical dialogue surrounding the use of aesthetics in journalism. Hopefully, in the process, this raises more complex questions for the viewer about the act of perception and ethics within art.
Stories and Interviews
Below is 4 extracts from my book Sueño Americano, click on each button to read through the text. The introduction includes a brief text regarding my field work and and and introduction to the issues and topics explored within the work. Eugene's story is an extract from my field work interviews which breaks down the sociological and political factors surrounding the tale of murder which is recounted. Oscar's story gives an insight into the process and shortcomings of the Trump era program 'Remain in Mexico, or MPP (migrant protection protocols), and how this system fails asylum seekers and exposes them to organised crime along the US/Mexico border. Owen's story recounts how he was kidnapped by a powerful criminal organisation in Mexico and held for a number of days in a clandestine camp, waiting for a decision on whether he should live or die dictated by the leaders of the cartel. Each story is just a small glimpse at the work for the 60,000 word collaborative book.
Photo of La Bestia in Veracruz State by Juan Lucca Malazzo.
An 11 year old boy from Belize waits for the train in Lecheria, Mexico.
Refugee arrivals (granted asylum) In the US by continent, 2010 to 2019.
Graph showing Homicide rates in Central America.
Official border crossing station in Tecun Uman, Guatemala, and the river full of rafts.
Image of pillars used to stop people boarding or dismounting trains.
‘He was already cold, his legs paling, I never saw the face, just the torn jacket and hood. His shoes had been knocked off in the impact - It was a suicide. Later, I passed a cigarette to a migrant carrying a bottle of glue. He didn’t know where he was anymore. He told me he lives by the train, and lost his hand to the train. “El tren lo hizo.” “Some [migrants] compare ‘La Bestia’ to a demon, others to a kind of vacuum that sucks distracted riders down into its metal entrails”. I held the lighter up and he cupped it with what was left of his hand. There, illuminated by the flame; the tiny enclosure we made, I could see how it all came to one decision, the slip of the foot. The train disappearing down the dark track forever. The smoke where there should have been hands…
The train stopped for nothing as we carried the empty grain cars west. Before realising, I was hit with a force that overwhelmed me beyond comprehension, a force only understood by an unstoppable machine. I sat up from the edge of the grain car, my camera was gone; it had fallen off of the train into the rocky nothing below, I was left with only the strap. We moved further from the valley, through tunnels. I had been struck by a branch, barely remaining on the train. Now I grasped the roof of this violent machine with both hands. We were on the cusp of the Grand Canyon, a landscape occupied only with conflict, with trains.
Days later I returned to this place, walking these curves for miles. I found the valley where it happened, searching, I found a pile of small branches. My camera was inside them, almost unharmed. The rest of the valley was pure stone. It got dark. We drove on a ribbon of moon, I don’t know why it happened that way.’
These experiences account for just 72 hours of my ongoing exploration of migration across Mexico, the premise of this text. Before I recovered my camera, I wondered that perhaps this ‘beast’ was trying to tell me something, by forcibly removing my tool of documentation from within its illusive habitat. It is a journey confounded by impossible themes.
Each month, Mexico’s extensive freight rail network unwillingly serves thousands of undocumented people from across Latin America and beyond, as an unofficial conduit of human migration. Due to the perilous nature of the journey, the train is commonly referred to as ‘La Bestia’ or The Beast, by locals and migrants alike. Apart from walking, this method of transportation is the only free ticket north for the people attempting to reach the United States. “Some migrants compare ‘La Bestia’ to a demon, others to a kind of vacuum that sucks distracted riders down into its metal entrails”. As La Bestia slowly traverses Mexico’s rugged landscape, these passengers are exposed to the subterranean environment of the country's criminal and cartel underworld, often referred to as the ‘Cachuco’ industry - an illicit market that aims to profit from migrants in any way possible. Some estimates suggest up to 20,000 migrants are kidnapped by criminal groups within Mexico each year.
This persecution of migrants by criminal groups in Mexico reflects the impunitive nature of structural violence and organised crime within the country as a whole, with 2020 appearing to be one of the most violent years for Mexico on record. This phenomenon is further enabled by the fact that many migrants fail to report abuses over fear of deportation and further exploitation from Mexican officials, who in turn act with relative impunity. It’s understandable that migrants place no trust in the authorities due to the high levels of corruption across all levels of policing. Entire police departments have been arrested for providing protection to drug traffickers and obstructing the work of local authorities. This reflects just how insidious police corruption continues to be in Mexico despite actions from the government.
Often the poorest of their communities, the people riding La Bestia contribute to “the single largest flow of migrants in the contemporary world”. Not only has Mexico itself produced the largest number of undocumented migrants globally — more than 12 million, it is also a transit country for at least 109,000 ‘irregular’ migrants each year, more than 75% destined for the US. Although ‘Irregular migration’ as an act has no clear definition, the irregularity is for example seen “in cases where a person crosses an international boundary without a valid travel document”. Today, approximately 95% of the migrants traversing Mexico ‘irregularly’ are from the ‘Northern Triangle’, which refers to the Central-American countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Driven by dire economic conditions and extreme violence in their countries of origin, as well as a desire by many to reunite with relatives already in the United States, hundreds of thousands of Central Americans have made the journey through Mexico towards the United States in the past decade alone.
Historically, irregular migration into the United States was attempted predominantly by Mexican nationals. However, for the first time in 2014, the U.S Customs and Border Protection Agency detained more non-mexican undcoumented people than people from Mexico, with that trend becoming more pronounced by 2020. This situation coincided with the highest homicide rates the Northern Triangle has seen in recent history, with Honduras and El Salvador having the worst homicide rates worldwide for a number of years between 2010 and 2015. The surge in migration also saw a drastic increase of unaccompanied children being detained on the US border, many of whom utilised La Bestia in their travel north. The arrest and detention of thousands of these young people in 2014 exposed the US government’s shady and punitive legal practices, and brought attention to the masses for a system which managed to evade widespread scrutiny for years.
Clandestine Migration to the US From Outside Latin America:
Although the vast majority of asylum seekers arriving on land at the southern US border are from the Northern Triangle, since the beginning of the 21st century, a steady stream of asylum seekers from around the world began to follow clandestine migration routes in Mexico alongside Latin Americans to reach the US. This is because many nationalities of people aren’t able to be granted any kind of visa to the North American continent, due to the tightening tourism and migration laws of the era. The closest countries to the US with lenient tourism policies to nations which have faced conflict in recent years (Syria, Iraq, DRC, Pakistan etc.) are the countries of Ecuador and Colombia, for instance, a visa-free entry agreement was implemented for Cameroonians in Ecuador in 2008. These kinds of agreements allow refugees a legal gateway to the South American continent, where they can remain, or attempt to journey north in hopes of reaching the US and legally applying for asylum. The nationalities encountered journeying north from the South American continent for asylum have varied over the years, as humanitarian or political crises occur in different locations globally, many the US is actively engaged in. The journey itself includes the perilous crossing of the Darien Gap, a 70km stretch of mountainous jungle between Colombia and Panama, which is the only gap in the pan american highway from Argentina to Alaska. The harrowing journey exposes migrants to risks from wild predatory animals, raging rivers and organised criminals and drug smugglers. Starting in the capital of Colombia, Bogota, this journey is around 4,500km and crosses 7 borders. “As rising border enforcement has made entry to other traditional destination regions - particularly Europe - more difficult, extracontinental migrants increasingly are turning their sights to varied destinations and routes, their travel often facilitated by smugglers or other migrants”. US asylum claims from African citizens who made the journey from South America also increased greatly during the Central American migration crisis of 2014 and the few years following, with 10,629 people from the african continent gaining asylum in 2012, and 31,647 in 2016. Despite the growing number of arrivals in Latin America, extracontinental migrants have received significantly less media attention amid vastly larger outward movements from Venezuela and Central America. Even so, since 2014, the journey has become even more challenging for the increasing number of extracontinental migrants moving across Latin America, due to many countries (such as Panama, Colombia and Costa Rica) ceasing to offer exit papers to extracontinental migrants crossing from Colombia to Central America in a targeted political response, even though historically the 6 countries between South America and Mexico would have granted them passage.
Improvisation and Uncertainty on Mexico’s migrant trail:
For people originating from any nation outside of North America, the journey within Mexico’s migrant trail begins most commonly at two points, around the forested town of El Ceibo, in Tabasco state, or over the river suchiate in Chiapas. This is because both areas lie close to the southernmost points of La Bestia’s reach, in the towns of Tapachula, Chiapas, and Tenosique, Tabasco. From there, migrants must assume each roughly 1,200 mile journey from these towns to the Texas border will be unique. Improvisation and collaboration between migrating communities are key values of the uncertain trajectories of Mexico’s migrant trail. However, a wealth of common knowledge concerning the routes dangers does not provide migrants much useful information about how they might cope with the challenges which face them once the decision has been actualised to leave their home states. Thus, hundreds of thousands of people arrive at Mexico’s southern border each year to confront the veritable unknown.
It is true also that the migrant trail of Mexico is an increasingly predatory environment, between that of the conflicting territories and exploitative practices of Mexico’s cartels, and local opportunists who commit crimes against migrants such as robbery and rape. Considering the impunity the police already operate within throughout Mexico, interactions between migrants and police, coyotes or local communities are rendered potentially dangerous due to the highly fluctuating environment of exploitation taking place. A strategy or connection that may have previously been safe, may increase the risks faced each subsequent time it is utilised in the same way, and information collated on previous trips can quickly be rendered obsolete by political and environmental changes. It is also worth considering the importance of psychological adaptability in a response to these constantly new experiences, and to the potential, or real violence experienced on the journey. Traveling these routes changes people, and the continual presence of transient people changes local society. Along the journey, the perceived roles of officials, migrants, smugglers and organised criminals also often overlap or shift; treachery is rampant under the pressures and immediate circumstances that are presented, as people are forced to make decisions in violent situations. Considering also the increasing population of migrants settling in Mexico due to the ever heightening difficulty of entering the US by any means, this entire sense of improvisation and imagination ultimately leads to the blurring of boundaries between foreigners and citizens, migrants and settlers.
(These are 4 short segments from the introduction to my book)
Eugene says he must have caught the beast at least 300 different times by now, each ride lasting up to 12 hours, clinging to the roof of freight cars filled with caustic chemicals, subjected to the weather, dark and subterranean social environment which surrounds the train itself. Really, he doesn’t know how many, but assumes he’s made the journey north from the Guatemalan border on the beast around 50 times, where he either reached the US, was captured and deported to Guatemala along the way, or stayed for work somewhere in Mexico, usually the city of Monterrey, near the US. Coming from the most Southeasterly city in Guatemala, Puerto Barrios, in the Gulf of Honduras, every journey for Eugene across Mexico starts in the town of Tenosique, Tabasco, 30 kilometres through dense jungle from the border of Guatemala, circumventing the immigration booth in the town of El Ceibo.
“I know many things from that town Tenosique man, I met many friends there, I got friends we meet there, friends that died, friends that are in the United States now, sometimes they send me money. My friend he just called me a couple days ago he asked me where i’m at, I told him ahh, i’m in Guatemala, and then he said ‘hey do you remember when we rode the train together man, fuck I don’t wanna remember that whole thing anymore because I'm never going to Honduras again…’ (laughs)”.
Though the dream may be easy, the voyage is incredibly dangerous. Migrants have very little protection after entering the rural jungle of Tabasco State, and the screams of suffering fall on deaf ears for the locals of the region, overwhelmed by the daily presence of new and desperate faces from further south. The majority of the governmental presence here consists of numerous migration police checkpoints, who in such sheltered and impoverished conditions, operate with impunity to not only rob and deport the waves of migrants that pass over this terrain daily, but assault and even kill them without obvious consequence. For years, undocumented migrants have considered robbery from police or bandits as the inevitable toll of the road, and for women, many begin this journey aware of the inevitable circumstance of sexual assault in ‘el camino’. Some women go so far as to take contraceptives before the journey, anticipating this kind of encounter, hoping to at least escape with their life.
Although the infamous drug cartel, ‘Los Zetas’ also held a vicious control of this region beginning in the late 2000s and throughout the migrant crisis of the mid 2010’s, the prevalence of local bandits perhaps became the most regular threat to migrants passing trails surrounding Tenosique since the start of the previous decade. The bandits of today were once rancheros of the many farming communities surrounding the trail, who for years likely watched groups of Central American migrants sneaking fearfully through their territories, dodging the gaze of local migration agents. Then one day a realisation likely occurred; the migrants are walking these trails in order to hide from the authorities, so if there were to be an assault, a robbery, nobody would report it. And with many migrants concealing substantial sums of money to pay smugglers later in their journey, for these impoverished communities, the opportunity to assault migrants could also be incredibly lucrative.
Wolves among sheep:
Despite this collective external threat for migrant groups in Mexico, individuals must also be aware of the risks posed by fellow travellers across sparsely populated regions; migrant on migrant crime certainly occurs, especially in the morally desolate rural territories of Southern Mexico, considering the impunity that isolation brings to all criminal groups. In this sense, there lies ’wolves among sheep’ within the sprawled groups of people waiting to ride the beast. Previous or active gang members accustomed to violence from their home states can opportunistically act in violence to profit from fellow desperate migrants on the journey, a somewhat common circumstance.
“In Honduras it’s a different deal though… I go sometimes close to the border, over to San Pedro Sula for work, but Honduras is hard man. Some people there they can rob you, even if they’re nice to you when you turn your back, they don’t give a shit. There’s a lot of guys from Honduras they speak good English and they ride the train and go to the United States, some ones they get in and some ones they never get it and they have to come back to Honduras to keep robbing people and stealing shit you know? because they want to get the easy money, but it’s not the best way though, there is many many ways to get easy money, not to hit people and rob people, we can do something else. That’s what I think, but that’s not what some of them think because everybody thinks different.”
At the beginning of the last decade, Honduras had a homicide rate of around 90 people per 100,000 per year. That was by far the highest in the world for any country not in active war. However, one could consider the war on MS-13 and 18th Street in Honduras, an incredibly costly civil conflict in itself, with some estimates putting the number of active gang members in Honduras at around 35,000, overwhelming the police during that period. With the majority of northbound migrants in that period being Honduran nationals, many previous or active gang members either wanted to escape the country for fear of their life, or at the very least try their luck at ‘una vida mejor’, away from the constant threats of violence. Therefore, any migrants who are detained by police in Mexico are usually checked for signs of gang affiliation, first identified perhaps by their choice of clothing and possession of jewellery, then confirmed, by physically checking their bodies for relevant tattoos, an imperative aspect of gang membership in Central America.
The busiest years:
Although Almost every migrant attempts to ride the train north from Tenosique, crossing the forest and wetlands between there and El Ceibo, one must be resourceful. On his last journey, Eugene said after crossing the river from the dense jungle that encases it, he paid 100 pesos to a local to be taken on horseback to the edge of town. However, over the years, he’s walked, ridden in local combis, hitched rides on farming vehicles, or paid to go on boats up the meandering river between the two towns.
“One time not so long ago, I was there in the border man, I was with two Honduran boys. And we walked around the border then paid to cross the river in a raft. Then those boys stole two horses from a ranch, I swear to god man! (laughs). They didn’t give a shit and they tried to ride them to Tenosique but someone they got caught by police later that day and put in the jail then deported, crazy man, I know.”
“But back in like, 2013, it was fucking different man. 1,000 people tried to catch every train in Tenosique, and there was like 400 more people coming there every day. Then every time the train left someone would get hurt, people get left behind because it goes fast, people get robbed and caught by the police, then in the next town, there was half the people.”
Early last decade, incredible numbers of people were arriving in these border towns from all directions, overwhelming them. As Eugene told me, Tenosique had one of the largest migrant shelters in all of Mexico. It was a lawless place, dark and full of cigarette smoke and dirty blankets. “That’s the Casa del Migrante with more people than any other in Mexico, that helps more people… The next stop for the train is Palenque. The Casa del Migrante there is too little, it’s a little place but that’s my favourite one, you know why? Because there everything is clean, you cannot smoke In there, its organised. In Tenosique, no man. That’s not good, they smoke weed, people sell cocaine in there, there’s a lot of trouble, they rob you when your sleeping, they do everything over there…”
I later asked Eugene what memories stood out to him the most, over the numerous times he’d passed through Tenosique to catch the beast, and right away he expressed to me that most of his strongest memories in Southern Mexico are the worst moments he has experienced in el camino.
A story about a murder, Tenosique:
“I couldn’t tell you all the stories man, I have so many stories! You know how many time’s I been in that train? I been in that train many fucking times man. I’m trying to ride that train but sometimes i’m scared. You know, not all the time is the best time to ride that train man, we gotta be careful… A lot of bad things happened in that fucking place.”
“It was like 6 years ago, or maybe more… and I met this guy he was from Guatemala, but that guy he had like 5000 pesos in his pocket; he wears nice shoes, nice clothes, because that guy was in United States before. You know, those people who lived in United States a long time, they don’t wanna be in Guatemala anymore when they get deported, and that guy had just got deported. I was drinking beer because I’m always drinking beer, and I went to the little store just by the train station and we were all waiting, it was like 11am or something. And when I went in the store with my friend, this guy was in the store and he said ‘where are you from?’ and I said, ‘Guatemala’. ‘Ahh, ok… and you speak english?’ ‘Yes, I speak enough english’. He said, ‘what you gonna do?’ ‘I’m going to United States because I got deportation man and I’m going back’, and he tells me he’s doing the same thing. ‘Fuck Guatemala I’m not staying there anymore man, I was happy in the United States but I fucked that up and got deported’.”
“And while we were talking, there was many, many guys around you know, waiting for the train, and some people in this group they were like, trying to see who has money and who don’t, and two Honduran guys were listening to us like stood near to us, you know. And this one guy, he talked too much because he was drinking. He was drunk and he told me he’s got a lot of money with him for the trip and if we want more beers we can get more beers, he didn’t give a shit. I told him I didn’t want more beers because I only had 100 pesos in my pocket, but he bought me 2 or 3 more beers…Anyways, the train came and we all caught it but he didn’t sit with me on the train, he was sat on the roof of the car in front of me, and I know a lot of guys from Honduras, but I never considered they are thinking about doing something else to us, never.”
“Anyway these two Hondurans, they stop the train. You know, you can let the air out of the breaks in the train and it stops, and then they came to his car and said “you need to give us the money, the shoes, the backpack… We think you work for some cartel because you got too much money”, that’s what they tell him. These guys had broke some branches off the trees before they came over, so they had these big sticks, and they started to hit him in the head, and this guy is shouting like oh man, please don’t do this to me, please let me go let me go, and he was crying in pain… man. I don’t wanna remember that shit.”
“That was the most horrible thing I seen in my life… They killed him next to us. And there was one pastor on the train, and he took his bible out and started to pray like ‘God… Please forgive these boys, they don’t know what they're doing’ and he was crying. You think they care? they didn’t give a shit. They were just beating him and beating him and he was crying and screaming and when he passed away he goes like… ugh, I don’t wanna remember that shit man, it took like half an hour [for him to die]. You know, if I get killed, I wish they can shoot me and that’s it, just take one second right? You don’t wanna die that way.”
“After that we leave the train over there and we were walking. That guy, they threw him off the top of the train but he was still not dead, he was trying to like, you know, crawl, and they left him under a tree and he died there. We walked and walked, and the next day I was in Palenque and I saw the news, like the paper news, and it said a migrant person had killed himself or fell from the train, they didn’t know what happened. I knew exactly what happened but i’m not gonna move my lips man.”
On robberies in Mexico:
“They can take my stuff, but just don’t touch me, you know? It’s easy that way just take my stuff, just don’t deal with my life, because i’m not going to get another one. That’s what I do, I got robbed on the train many times. One time I got robbed like 3 o’clock in the morning, It happened before we got to Coatzacoalcos, in a town called Chontalpa. We were getting off the train and trying to walk because there was an immigration raid and they were trying to catch us. Out of the town like ten guys were waiting, and they said, we need all that stuff you got. The phones, the rings, the chains, the wallets, the money, everything. If you guys are nice, we are gonna take it then we’re not gonna do anything to you guys. And we were like, ok. Just put them in the bag thats it, take them. that’s what we do man.”
On injuries on La Bestia:
“But people losing their leg or something, I’ve been around that maybe 50 times. Many legs (laughs), mannnny legs man. [In Spanish] I saw one time in San Luis, the train station is by the migrant shelter and it was like 6 in the morning, and they were all sleeping outside and there was this one girl with a guy, you know. And they were all lay over the tracks and eventually a train came and the girl she wanted to board it with that guy, but she was struggling because she was so tired. When she ran by the moving train she put her foot on the ladder but she slipped you know, and then the train cut her foot and it lay separated from her on the tracks. I was there and she asked for help, she wanted me to put it in a plastic bag for her, but I didn’t want to touch it. (laughs). We called the Red Cross but we got on the train anyway and never saw what happened because she was with another group. We were in our own group and rode straight to Saltillo.”
(Still from an Interview with Oscar and his 10 year old son, Monterrey, Mexico - September 2019)
Whilst riding La Bestia in the south of Mexico, I spent time with a man named Oscar and his 10 year old son. We first met in Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, and managed to find each other again in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. At one point, he told me he had fallen from the moving train, injuring his knee and almost being cut in half by the wheels, getting separated with his son in the process. Luckily, the injuries weren't serious, and a fellow Honduran they had met on the train, looked after the boy until they were able to reunite. Oscar explained to me in an interview, why he fled Honduras with his son, exposing them both to the danger of Mexico's migrant trail.
"My son was 9 when he left with me from Honduras. I have two daughters and another boy. I drove a 'Mototaxi' in Honduras and [MS-13] charged me rent, they call it a war tax. Well, one month I couldn't pay it, so I said, "next month I will pay what’s overdue”. They said no, I have to give the money now. "Ok" I said, because with them, if they say "you have to give it", you have to give it. The next month, when I was leaving from work they came again to say that because I still hadn't paid, they wanted to take [my oldest son]. Ah, no, I said, I can't. I don't want that for my son. But they told me they were going to get him. They threatened to rape my daughter ... So that's when I told my son ... Well (crying) I did not let him prepare his clothes, I just told him "We have to go". So, that same night we left our house for 'El Norte'... I told him, let's see if we can cross, let's go to the States. He was calmer after that, because he always wanted to be in the US ... I did not have plans to leave, until that happened."
The journey out of Honduras and across Guatemala was relatively quiet for Oscar and his son, who arrived at the town of El Ceibo on the Mexican border just a few days later.
“When we entered Mexico, we began to feel quite the change as we started to follow the railroad… In Mexico there are good things and bad things, the good part is the brotherhood of the mexican people. From when you arrive they give you constant support. On the train itself, it is more complicated, because of the assaults… and migration issues, the security and migration police, they start to follow you, they take away your stuff, sometimes people fall from the train during this… In Salto de Agua, (Chiapas) [the migration police] took our clothes, our shoes, and then we were asking on the way and thank God we found quite a lot of good people. They had helped us with clothes, shoes and also with food, even if it’s a coin to feed my son… We brought a Little money… they took away that as well.”
Around 60 days after Oscar entered Mexico, he managed to safely arrive at the border town of Piedras Negras, with his son who had turned 10 during the journey. He told me with no money for a smuggler, he decided they would hide inside another freight train crossing the bridge into Eagle's Pass, Texas, where they would be detected by the XRAY machines and taken into custody, hopefully giving them both a chance at asylum. Unfortunately, Oscar wasn't aware of the harsh realities of the new 'Remain In Mexico' (MMP) policy, and even though he fit the supposed criteria for being awarded asylum in the US, they were rejected and set for deportation. After the change in migration legislation, for a period in the second half of 2019 only 0.2% of applications for asylum are awarded, meaning that 500 'Oscars and sons' would have to make the roughly 3000km journey to that interview room to grant one family a chance at asylum in the US
Not long after this situation had taken place, my fixer (Cindy Gainza, USA) received a phone call from Oscar. He informed Cindy that he had been rejected asylum and given a slip of paper, telling him to return to the US in December. He was scared to go back to Mexico, because he had heard the stories of kidnap on the border towns. Oscar said he and roughly 100 other people who were sent back to Mexico that day were taken from the bridge to the local immigration office for processing. After that, he says a man wearing a Mexican immigration officer uniform agreed to take him and his son to the bus station so they could go to a safer city. But as soon as they got to the station, he had a bad feeling.
"When I went in with my son, this guy grabbed me. He was a tall guy, strong, full of tattoos. So he grabbed me and he said, I want to talk to you. And I said, I have nothing to talk to you about. And he said, you're going to get into that car, and we're going to ask you some questions. And I said, no. And he said, you can get into the car the easy way or the hard way."
Oscar had said a few other migrants were also taken in a car with him, trapped in the same situation. He also told us the immigration officials who dropped him off at the bus station, waited for the cartel members to speak with him, and watched him be escorted into the car. If true, this is a blatant example of police corruption taking place on the US-Mexico border. confirming this story, Oscar had told Cindy his sister wired money from the US, to the immigration officials account for the bus journey he was supposed to take, and this ended up being the same details as the cartel used to ask for the ransom to release Oscar and his son.
"The guy just told us to keep our heads down, to stop looking at the sights. And the guy who was driving us was keeping an eye on us, and he was making sure we were not chatting."
Shortly after getting in the vehicle, Oscar said he arrived at a cartel safe house, and was photographed and interviewed about how he got to the border, what he did in Honduras, and most importantly, about his family in the US. He was then placed in a darkened room with 20 other male migrants and only one mattress, the women were held in another, adjacent room. They were told not to look or interact with the women.
"I would lay down with him in a corner, and I would hug my son. They couldn't see you crying, but my tears were almost, like, falling out."
The cartel had been in contact with a family member of Oscar's in the US, one he gave the details of, to liaise a ransom payment. The initial ransom was set at 10,000 dollars each, a figure that the family member would never be able to produce. Oscar’s relative tried desperately in the few days permitted to collect at least part of the sum, before informing the cartel that it would be impossible. They changed the figure to 5,000 dollars each, then 5,000 dollars total. After 4 days she called them again to tell them she only had 1,200 dollars. They accepted. After this, one of the bosses came to collect Oscar, telling him they had reached a deal. They told him "get up with your son, fat guy, because today I'm going to release you guys because your [family member] already paid, made a deposit." Oscar was then sent on a bus back to Monterrey, where we conducted the first interview a month prior, and gave up hope of reaching the USA, as the cartel had taken his immigration papers. Since then, we have been in intermittent contact, and he has informed us that he returned safely back to Honduras, and is now in hiding with his son from the cartel, staying at a family members house in a rural town. This is just one of thousands of stories that occured on the border of Mexico and the US since MMP was implemented in early 2019, with estimates suggesting up to 6/10 migrants waiting their asylum hearing south of the border are kidnapped or extorted during the process.
Image of the train bridge where Oscar and his son crossed into the United States inside of a freight train car.
Owen (right) and his travelling companion waiting to board a train in Tampico, Mexico.
Two perspectives of Owen riding a train in Northern Mexico, in photo two, a pile of rocks can be seen on the train, used to throw at potential bandits.
Image of police confronting the pair after the train they were riding was attacked by a criminal group.
A screenshot from the current Google Maps street view, showing a group of migrants being kidnapped from the train yard in Nuevo Laredo, in the identical location Owen waited.
Two automatic flickr update images uploaded to Owens phone of his kidnapper with his family a few days after he was released.
Owen and his travelling companion walk through a smoke filled field in Northern Mexico.
A short text contextualising the audio interview with my collaborator Owen, giving further information.
The current situation for migrants in Tamaulipas State and specifically Nuevo Laredo (the world's busiest commercial border hub) is particularly severe due to two main factors. Firstly, the recent insurgence of the 'Cartel Del Noreste', an offshoot of ‘Los Zetas' cartel, has created a surge in migrant extortion and violence, as the gang operates with relative impunity. Los Zetas are notoriously known as the most violent cartel to ever operate within Mexico. Secondarily, the Trump administration's so-called Migrant Protection Protocols, known as "Remain in Mexico" were enacted at the beginning of 2019 - whereby would be asylum seekers must await their appointed hearing south of the border. For the duration of MMP, an estimated 70,000 people awaited their asylum hearing date south of the border without support, in clandestine camps, religious shelters, or alone. Tens of thousands more are waiting just for the initial application for asylum. Due to this protocol, it was found that in one month, around 75% of migrants waiting in Nuevo Laredo under MPP had been abducted by the mafia, and 45% to have suffered violence or violation. Unfortunately, through the advancements and adaptations of anti-drug-trafficking enforcement within Mexico over the last two decades, as well as the US legalisation of recreational cannabis in many states, the cartel’s conventional revenue streams have been partially stemmed. Therefore, the increased levels of violence and extortion against migrants could certainly be attributed to the direct necessity to fund organised criminal activities, as well as the constant technological advancements cartels employ, through other means than only the drugs trade.
Although there are 8 major international train crossings between the US and Mexico, more migrants choose to attempt their crossing in Tamaulipas for a number of reasons. The state is the closest to Central America by train, and there is very little walled border, instead the Rio Bravo separates the US and Mexico in all of Tamaulipas. It is generally regarded as easier to cross the Rio Grande with an inflatable device, than to cross the physical wall and desert of western Mexico in towns like Juarez and Tijuana, which were previously some of the most violent towns in the world. In fact, as of 2019, Tijuana was the most violent city in the world, with 138 murders per 100,000. However, due to the previously stated factors, it is perhaps becoming more dangerous for migrants to attempt to cross into the US via Tamaulipas, as opposed to other areas which were previously regarded as cartel hotspots.
'Owen' (not his real name) first travelled with me to Mexico over the winter of 2018, and then again in the summer of 2019. We spoke online for a number of months, loosely planning our trip to Mexico, before meeting for the first time outside of the US embassy in Mexico City. We initially made contact after 'Stobe', a mutual friend of ours, was killed in a freak freight train accident in Baltimore. Stobe had a large internet following before his death, and both of us had been featured in his videos. When Owen was 17 years old, he had seen a video I'd created about American hobos featuring Stobe, which he recounted was one of his main inspirations for first attempting to ride a freight train in the first place. The next year, Owen decided to leave the shelter of his parents home (and the 'far-right religious cult' he told me he grew up in) for a life on the road. He resented the experiences of his childhood, as well as his parents, who he no longer had contact with, for their homeschooling regime and cruel treatment of him and his siblings. Despite all of this, Owen was markedly brave and open-minded.
Our first trip across Mexico in 2018 ended prematurely, with me breaking an ankle in Sinaloa State, where Owen continued to the US border alone. Our second trip, we decided to go separate ways after around 3 weeks, due to a divergence in our interests with the journey. Owen perhaps could be described as being 'possessed' by the concept of a freight train, and the ability to ride atop them. He religiously, yet anonymously documents the scenery of every ride he takes on his trusty GoPro for a Youtube audience, and places value almost solely in the conquering of new routes, at the sacrifice of increasingly, his own wellbeing. Although his veritable fixation on producing his online travel content may sometimes skew his sense of rationality surrounding the risks involved in this endeavour, he is generally acutely aware of the objective risks of his actions through his thorough research on each area he visits prior to arrival.
True to his word, Owen returned to Mexico 2 months after we had parted ways in 2019, this time with a 30 year old French-Canadian, to attempt to document every freight train route in Mexico. This would've been the first time someone compiled a comprehensive guide to the train routes across the country, in theory enabling many more people to access the information needed to utilise this mode of transport for clandestine travel; potentially also a useful resource for migrants attempting to reach the US in this manner. It should be noted that there are only 2 short passenger lines in all of Mexico, so this is in fact the only way to experience the railroad and rural scenery across the country, and do so for free. Unfortunately, because of the many people who are already taking advantage of the trains in Mexico, there is subsequently a thriving market for exploitation of La Bestia’s passengers.
After travelling on most of Mexico's train lines, Owen and his companion succumbed to the all-too-common effects of food poisoning, as well as both getting minor lung infections due to the harsh conditions they were subjecting themselves to. Due to this, the pair abandoned the Southernmost region of Mexico (potentially the most dangerous) to head back towards the USA. Although they had encountered many close calls and witnessed many acts of violence around them, so far, they were largely unharmed. The almost ubiquitous stories of cartel kidnappings of migrants and other train riders around Mexico were so far for Owen, just stories. He had even encountered and communicated with various cartels a number of times as they attempted to steal merchandise from trains he was riding. However, Owen's blasé attitude would eventually, almost become his undoing, before he managed to make it back to the US border. After 3 months of near continuous travel, Owen and his companion had one final train journey between them and the border town of Nuevo Laredo, where they would cross into the United States. They fell asleep on a train out of Monterrey as darkness fell, Owen had set an alarm to wake them both as they approached the border. However, the train travelled north much faster than they had anticipated, and approached the edge of the large, newly built train yard 10 miles out of Nuevo Laredo while they were still asleep, and in plain view of onlookers.
Included with this text, is a recording of two phone calls between Owen and myself, as he recounts the situation in which he was kidnapped from the train and held in a cartel controlled camp for a number of days before his release. As the train entered the rural yard, the pair were awoken by guards and flashlights while the train was still moving at 10kph. By now, this type of event was not particularly disconcerting, as many train companies employ private security to remove illegal riders. The pair were split up as they packed their things and tried to run from the train, and the 3 guards attempted to apprehend them. A few moments later, Owen was tackled by one of the guards (which is very uncommon), who he then easily overpowered and pinned to the ground. Moments later he was hit unconscious from behind by another guard, and the story continues from this point within the phone call.
If you search the exact location Owen was kidnapped on the latest version of google maps, you can clearly see a group of migrants being held by the cartel at a signal mast in broad daylight, where cartel members usually observe the trains for stowaways.
Owen reported the crime to border officials on his return, as well as the train company who operated from the yard in Nuevo Laredo (KCSM), but has had no further correspondence. Unfortunately, these kinds of crimes are all too common in Mexico, especially surrounding the train network and subsequent migration trail. The high level corruption for the train company operating in Nuevo Laredo is blatant, and perhaps unavoidable considering the power of the local cartel, the 'Cartel Del Noreste’.
A few days later, once Owen had reunited with his family in Central Texas, he saw something very strange. After buying a new phone and logging into all of his previous accounts, he noticed his Flickr account had been updated. The cartel member who had initially taken his belongings, had in fact kept the phone for personal use, instead of delivering it with the rest of the items that were confiscated from Owen and his companion. Over the coming weeks, a series of family photos appeared from this unnamed criminal on Owen's account, of which he downloaded every one.
My Experience of Nuevo Laredo:
I personally returned to this location around a month after these events had taken place to continue the project, and the sense of fear in the local community was certainly palpable. There was only one hotel we could safely stay at in the town, as they had an agreement with the cartel to protect the customers. It was also difficult to secure an interview with the current director of the largest migrant shelter in Nuevo Laredo, but he agreed on the condition we would hide his identity. The previous director, Aaron Mendez, was kidnapped by members of CDN while defending asylum-seekers at his shelter, according to numerous media accounts, and two sources familiar with the situation. Almost a year later, neither Mendez or the migrants he was trying to protect, have been located. In fact, just sitting in my car outside of the shelter with my collaborator from Mexico, was enough to elicit a shakedown by a cartel member, who mistook me for a rogue smuggler, and Erick, for a customer. Another day, I drove the long highway out of town to see the location which Owen described to me. I knew it was incredibly risky, but I couldn't resist getting a deeper understanding of this situation with my own eyes. At the bottom of the train yard, stood one man with a gun. We immediately turned around and drove back towards town. A truck followed us for a while that parked with the armed man, and at many of the crossings and junctions, people on radios read out our number plate and tried to see into the windows. Then, on the day we were planning to leave, I was speaking to two people in a shopping mall parking lot, when a homeless man approached me, and said had been instructed to tell me to stop asking questions about the cartel, and we were being watched as we spoke. That afternoon we left on a toll road and never returned.
Below are a series of digital renders and photographs of physical objects which represent the exhibition aspect of this project. Along with showcasing the book and producing a short film based on the results of my field work and analysis in Mexico, I planned to present an exhibition which combined physical objects, audio, photography, text and video as a kind of 'forensic archive' of the Mexican migrant trail.
I collaborated with a Mexican-American Archeologist to present a series of weapons located in the tunnels and drainage systems surrounding the US/Mexico border and within the city of Los Angeles, the US city with the largest hispanic migrant population, as well as the highest population of undocumented individuals. I also collected a series of objects while riding La Bestia, like this discarded backpack complete with general contents, glue bottles used to inhale intoxicating substances, and many more.
After making a personal connection with a local cartel member in Chihuahua, Mexico, the man gave to me a collection of seeds from local Cannabis farms used to generate revenue for the criminal group in the local and national market. These seeds have been bred and naturally adapted within the region creating a unique plant specific to the mountains surrounding Chihuahua. The seeds were grown and results documented in order to showcase the physical plant within an exhibition space.
Below are some extracts from a roughly 50 page guide which is the most comprehensive collection of information to date regarding utilising Mexico's freight trains in clandestine journey's towards the United States. The book gives an overview of how the train works, where it goes, how to safely ride it, how Mexico enforces anti-immigration actions surrounding the train and various migration routes in Mexico and much more. The guide also has the most comprehensive list of migrant charities, religious and legal organisations and shelters across all of Mexico and Central America, complete with addresses, names, emails phone numbers and more. Confidential information was also collected on private and commercial train schedules giving a detailed and previously unseen insight into the timings and locations of every freight train in Mexico that regularly operates.
Not only has 100's of hours of work been invested into the collection of data for this project, but 100's of hours have been spent on the ground in Mexico confirming or disproving collected information, giving personal testimonies to, for instance, police activity or successful techniques of migration in specific locations and much more. The guide will be completed in both English and Spanish, and distributed through a series of shelters I am in contact with in Mexico, to aid and hopefully make safer, the journey's of travellers across Mexico towards the US border.
Below is a 3D render of the book, Sueño Americano: Understanding La Bestia and Latin American Migration to the US, as well as a large image of my photograph and the cover of the book itself.