For more than a decade, desperate migrants crossing Mexico on their way to the US border have risked their lives to hop a series of fast-moving freight cars — referred to collectively as La Bestia or “the Beast” — that are so dangerous they are known as “death trains.”
Every year up to 500,000 migrants from Central America, but also lately from Venezuela, ride on top of box cars that normally transport grain, cement and other industrial materials to the US border. Many have been killed, or lost limbs when they have fallen off the roof and under the steel wheels of the rapidly moving freight cars.
And as Title 42 — a Trump-era policy that allowed US Border Patrol to immediately send back migrants to Mexico — comes to an end Thursday, there have been numerous reports of migrants increasingly taking to the rails to join the thousands of asylum seekers along the nearly 2,000-mile US southern border.
“The cargo trains, which run along multiple lines, carry products north for export,” reads a report from he Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, DC-based think tank that studies immigration policy. “As there are no passenger railcars, migrants must ride atop the moving trains, facing physical dangers that range from amputation to death if they fall or are pushed.”
They also face extreme cold on top of the cars at night, and blistering heat on blazing summer days.
Despite the danger, thousands of the poorest migrants and those who do not have the temporary visas required by the Mexican government to travel through the country are hopping on the moving trains, some with infants and small children in tow.
The appeal: Migrants do not pay for their journey to border towns such as Piedras Negras, across from the US border at Eagle Pass, Texas, or Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso.
“It’s very dangerous,” said Robert Almonte, a security consultant who uses a video of migrants hopping the trains in his lectures to law enforcement officials across the country. “When they are on top of the trains some of the migrants push each other off because there is so little space. I show a video in my talks of one person being sliced in half after he falls off a train and onto the wheels. It just goes to show the lengths people go to to get through Mexico.”
In addition to reports of amputated limbs and deaths, there have also been reports of physical abuse, kidnapping and rape.
In 2014, one of the trains derailed with some, 1,300 migrants on board.
Once they make it to a northern Mexican border city, migrants face shakedowns by transnational criminal groups, such as the Juarez cartel, in order to approach the US border, Almonte said.
“It’s easy money for the cartels because they get paid right away,” said Almonte, a former US Marshall and El Paso police chief. “With drug shipments, cartel members have to wait sometimes months to get paid, but with the migrants it’s fast cash.”
According to the Migration Policy Institute report, “Train conductors are also part of the chain of extortion, sometimes demanding bribes, particularly of women and families with children, who want to board before the train starts moving.”
In Mexico, little has been done officially to dissuade migrants from riding the rails, Almonte told The Post.
Mexican authorities monitor the trains in the southern parts of the country, where migrants congregate once they cross the Guatemalan border,and in the north before they cross into the US, but the country has limited resources, said Ariel Ruiz-Soto, a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute.
Ruiz-Soto told The Post that most of the migrants who ride the rails are hopping the freight cars in the Mexican interior to evade capture by the authorities.
“Railroads have not been enforcement priorities in Mexico,” said Ruiz-Soto. “Mexican border agents and the national guard have focused on patrolling roads, and you see more and more migrants hopping the trains as a wider strategy to evade detection.”
In the US, former US President Barack Obama demanded that Mexico address an “urgent humanitarian situation” and crack down on desperate migrants riding the box cars in 2014, when tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors were crossing the US southern border.
That same year, the US Customs and Border Protection hired a public relations firm to come up with a catchy song warning of the dangers of taking the trains.
The result was “La Bestia Norte,” written in the style of a Mexican corrido or narrative ballad.
The song, which hit the airwaves in Central American countries, was written by New York City-based composer Carlo Nicolau and features the voice of Eddie Ganz, a wedding and Bar Mitzvah singer.
The lyrics are dark, and include the lines: “Migrants from everywhere, entrenched along the rail ties. Far away from where they come, farther away from where they go … They call her the Beast from the South, this wretched train of death. With the devil in the boiler, it whistles, roars, twists and turns.”
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