I Spent Years Train-Hopping ‘The Beast,’ Mexico’s Infamous Migrant Train

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The blueish ink of dawn spilled into the horizon behind us. I was exhausted. We had just jumped onto a moving freight train in the mountain town of Orizaba and were slowly heading north through the peaks of the Sierra Madre. Alongside me, amid the haunting sound of steel, dozens of migrants from around the world clung atop the mile-long train, forging an uncertain path north toward the US border.

Security on Mexico’s freight trains was tight, and as we ducked down past a police checkpoint, hollow bangs reverberated off the rocky cliffs above us. Suddenly, smoke billowed from the train’s brakes, forcing an emergency stop. Other riders jumped off in every direction. As I climbed down the ladder, I turned to see a soldier—his rifle aimed at my head. I, too, decided to run. Sprinting across the wet soil of a cornfield, the cracks of gunfire followed closely behind as bullets ripped first through the air and then into the plants in front of me. With no other choice, I lay down on the ground with my hands above my head. 

After I was released, I discovered that the train had been ambushed by a cartel, sparking a gunfight. I had been mistaken for one of them and could’ve been killed… No surprise—we were in Central Mexico’s Acultzingo Valley, known as the “train robbery capital of the world.” Despite all the close calls, it was a place I would return to again and again, witnessing snapshots of the profound struggles that underscore the dangerous world of contemporary migration to the US.

ASYLUM-SEEKERS ARRIVE ON ‘THE BEAST’ IN LECHERIA YARD, MEXICO CITY. 2020.

Discovering freight-hopping

As a teenager, I was deeply troubled and found it challenging to navigate school and stay out of trouble with the police. I was sent to a pupil referral unit, a kind of school in the UK for children with behavioral problems or criminal convictions. Seeking an escape from the alienation of my environment, I began traveling to London and living in squats as part of the punk scene. Soon, I discovered the concept of ‘freight-hopping’ through a hundred-year-old book, The Road by Jack London. Searching further online, I learned there was still a community of people living as hoboes across the US

The following year, at age 16, I flew to Oregon, intending to hop on a freight train myself. I had no idea how this colossal industry actually worked. But looking back now on the camcorder footage of the first time I rode a freight train, I see joy on the face of a teenager who, for a long time, had felt alone and without purpose. It was the most captivating experience of my life, and what began as a simple adventure quickly became an obsession. 

A GROUP OF YOUNG TRAIN HOPPERS THROW FRUIT AT EACH OTHER FROM A PASSING TRAIN, CALIFORNIA. 2017.

Growing up in working-class Britain, I’d barely left the country; traveling on freight trains was my first time seeing a desert, pine forest, or mountain. I also met hundreds of young people like myself. Many of the train-hoppers I encountered on the rails began as teen runaways—fleeing their parents’ troubled lives or the custody of for-profit care homes and juvenile detention centers. 

Being part of this community, I quickly became interested in politics, and I thought more about the broader narratives of migration itself. For most of history, freedom had to be suffered for, if not died for, raising it to something sacred. But in the US today—at least in conventional society— sacrifice is rarely needed as freedom is largely guaranteed. South of the border in Mexico, for many, the search for freedom takes a very different form.

The Beast

Mexico hasn’t had a passenger train service since the 80s. However, across a freight train network connecting to the US and Canada, a vast, illicit industry has sprung up: clandestine migration—and it’s a big business. Each month, Mexican freight trains unwillingly serve thousands of undocumented people from across Latin America and beyond, and they call these trains la bestia, or The Beast

In 2018, I connected with a US train-hopper called Owen, who was estranged from his staunchly religious family and had been riding the rails since the age of 18. Owen was known for uploading videos of his freight-hopping online, and he was experienced in traveling this way undetected. After riding trains in Mexico the year before, I wanted to understand more about the emotional and physical costs of this journey—and the people who chose to migrate using The Beast.

I hoped that Owen and I could document our journey, perhaps giving a fraction more agency to people we met whose stories otherwise would’ve remained inside this hidden world. Few journalists venture onto the train itself, and for obvious reasons. After a single phone call, Owen and I agreed to take a freight trip across Mexico, following the migration route to the US border. 

RIDING SOUTHBOUND ON A GRAIN TRAIN FROM JUAREZ, MEXICO. 2017.

We met in Mexico City and traveled south on the train to reach our starting point. The views were truly captivating, but that didn’t distract us from the risks surrounding us. As we passed a tunnel in the mountains of Veracruz, we were spotted by a police convoy. They searched us, taking money, headphones, and other small things, but ultimately let us go. Thanks to Owen, we connected with a train driver in the region who, by some miracle, was driving the next train south. At sunset, we jumped into the moving engine and continued with the crew until late in the night, when a group of locals stopped our train to let the air out of the brakes and steal grain. 

The following days were a blur of anxiety and exhaustion. Through day and night, we rode and hid with people we met on the train, documenting everything. Our experience in the US had prepared us well, and a camaraderie emerged between us and the dozens of other people we moved with north. Most were asylum-seekers from Central America; some were Mexican hoboes who drifted on this dangerous path. One man still wore his landscaping uniform from Texas: He hoped to return to the US to reunite with his children, who were US citizens—a common story.

These strangers were bound together by their pursuit, but trust remained scarce, and many of those we met had stories of betrayal from the people who rode with them. Sergio, a Mexican man, told us of an assault by bandits, who beat him with rocks to steal only a few dollars worth of belongings. 

Our trip came to an unexpected end when we disembarked from the train late at night in Sinaloa. I tripped and badly broke my ankle. With only a few passing words, the men we had traveled with for days climbed back inside the train, and we did not see them again. 

LEFT: TWO ASYLUM SEEKERS BOARD A TRAIN IN HIDALGO, MEXICO. 2018. RIGHT: MY HANDS AFTER RIDING A COAL TRAIN FROM TIERRA BLANCA TO ORIZABA, MEXICO. 2018.

The Cartels

I returned to Mexico a few months later, this time with a car. I met up with Owen, but our paths eventually diverged, and I began writing about the experiences of the people who chose to ride The Beast. I traveled across the country to unearth not only personal stories but the evolving, overarching dynamics that defined the country’s migration. 

Children as young as 10 traveled alone from Central America, and near the train yards, we found women’s underwear hanging from the undergrowth. Locals told us that this was left as an abhorrent sign of rape. Some women, even those traveling with their partners, explained that they’d begun taking contraception before arriving in Mexico, fearing sexual assault on the train. This was the reality, yet many of the victims felt unsafe reporting crimes to the authorities—they felt the police were sometimes the biggest threat in terms of robbery and assault.

One man I met at a shelter, Oscar, told me of the violence he’d faced traveling to Mexico from Honduras with his 10-year-old son. We exchanged details, and a few weeks later, he called to tell me that they had been kidnapped at the US border. To pay the ransom, he said, the cartel pressed Oscar to sell his child’s organs. They were only freed after their family paid $2,500. 

The story repeated all too often. Strangers warned me to stop doing interviews in Mexico, yet I continued—and so did Owen, down a different path.

A MIGRANT RECEIVES MEDICAL CARE AFTER LOSING A LIMB FALLING FROM THE BEAST. 2022. 

Between us, we had probably ridden The Beast more than 50 times. Although I still ventured onto the train, I felt we’d already pushed our luck too far. At the end of another of Owen’s trips, we lost contact online. I didn’t consider it cause for concern—that is, until I received a phone call from his brother, saying Owen had been kidnapped by the cartel and was still missing. A short time later, I received a call from Owen himself. He was back in the US and lucky to be alive. 

He said he had been a captive of the Cartel Del Noreste, an offshoot of the infamous Los Zetas cartel, who had kidnapped, extorted, and murdered thousands of migrants across Mexico. Traveling with a Canadian, he’d arrived at a large train yard on the US border when guards removed them from the train—a common occurrence. However, both were then tackled to the ground and beaten over the head with rocks. At gunpoint, they were cable-tied and loaded into a car, and everything but their T-shirts and trousers were taken from them. For 3 or 4 days, they lay on pieces of cardboard in a clandestine camp, at the mercy of armed teenagers high on crack. Many captured migrants passed through the camp during this time, until Owen and his friend were released by cartel commanders to avoid bringing unnecessary heat to the kidnapping operation.

With so much exploitation on Mexico’s migrant trail, we knew we were running the risk of being kidnapped. In a way, I think we were surprised it didn’t happen sooner—regardless of our efforts to avoid it. After years, the comfort of riding a freight train warped our sense of risk. Later, images of Owen’s kidnapper showed up on his Flickr account—they were automatically backing up from his stolen phone.  We saw the man in bed with his wife, and pictures of his children, all geo-located.

Crackdown

A FRIEND AND I HIDING INSIDE A GRAIN CAR IN HIDALGO, MEXICO. 2022. 

The last time I rode The Beast was in 2022. After working on a documentary in Mexico, I returned to the Acultzingo Valley. Rain was pouring as our train arrived at dawn. Winding through the cloud-covered peaks, loud echoes surrounded us like sounds of pain, and I imagined the thousands who had traveled this road before us. It felt wrong to be there. New security cameras and military encampments were set up every few miles, and before long, I was spotted. I tried hiding inside a welding port on the train, but it didn’t matter—the police found me. This time, I was taken by van to a deportation center. 

With increasing US political pressure, the Mexican authorities have begun to restrict travel on The Beast more than ever before, conducting regular and more violent raids on trains. Recently, the government halted trains across the country to prevent a surge of tens of thousands of new migrants from injury and death. Since then, Mexican President Andres Obrador announced plans to issue a decree that would bring back passenger train services. It’s too soon to say how this might affect the prospects of migrants traversing Mexico, but one thing is certain. Regardless of policy, the underlying conditions propelling people to search for a better life will persist—and so will the flow of human migration on the busiest migrant corridor on Earth. 

Source: VICE