The Mexican Trains of Death (El Tren de La Bestia)

By Beldon Butterfield

El tren de la bestia (the train of the beast) is a train ridden by Central Americans starting from the town of Arriaga some 147 miles north of the Guatemalan border. The train is also referred to as “el tren de la muerte” (the train of death) as well as “el tren de los desconocidos” (the train of the unknown.). The 1,400-mile trip across Mexico to the nearest US border town is hazardous and in many cases can lead to death. In fact this is not one train but many, depending on the final destination. According to my interview with a young Honduran named Joel, a person can change trains from 10 to 15 times before reaching a final destination.

The people who mainly travel on the top of these train cars are from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Despite the dangers they face from lack of food, the real possibility of falling asleep and being thrown off onto no man’s land below when one of these trains goes around a curve or up an incline are just some of the dangers that have to be overcome. Then there are bribes that have to be paid for safe passage. These obstacles are nothing compared to the real possibility of falling into the hands of organized criminal gangs. At the top of the list of these vicious gangs are the MS-13 that operate in Central America and southern Mexico known as the “mara salvatrucha”, and in northern Mexico as los Zetas.

The Zetas made a name for themselves when on August 24, 2010, they executed 72 undocumented Central Americans in an empty shed next to the town of San Fernando, 88 miles south of the state of Texas near the Gulf of Mexico. This performance was followed by another grisly discovery of 193 people buried in 47 clandestine mass graves in the vicinity of the same town. San Fernando is near the tracks where the “tren de la bestia” passes when coming up from Veracruz on the way to the Mexican/Texas border mainly across from Brownsville and McAllen. None of the victims carried any identification, and all were presumed to be from Central America.

Recently what has captured the media’s attention are the tens of thousands of children from Central America crossing the border into the United States seeking asylum. Thousands more are on the way. All sorts of different opinions are aired as to why these children suddenly appeared, catching the Border Patrol completely by surprise. Most parrot the line of the lawless conditions back home. They also claim that President Obama has led them to believe they can find sanctuary in America.

What nobody is asking is how 50,000 children from Central American can journey across 1,400 miles of unfriendly territory from Guatemala to the US unnoticed. Nor is anyone asking who is paying all the bribes to make this possible. It is inconceivable that the Mexican government would not be aware of their presence, but then nobody asks the Mexican authorities why they are allowing this migration across their country. Instead, President Obama dispatched Vice President Biden to Central America to investigate. This was no sooner done than the presidents of these Central American countries arrived in Washington, pleading their cases and being interviewed on national television, as well as asking for financial support to relieve the terrible conditions in their respective countries that are causing parents to send their children to a safer environment.

It should be obvious that the solution to this problem lies with the Mexican authorities. Some observers believe the cartels are also involved. After all, who has the financial means to grease the palms of corrupt government officials as well as containing the criminal gangs that prey on children who can be sold into various nefarious activities, the sex trade heading the list?

The cartels have a real ax to grind with the growing aid that American law enforcement is giving to their counterparts in Mexico. Most American officials debunk this theory, preferring to keep to the humanitarian side of the story.

An obvious way for the Mexican cartels to get back at the United States is to open the border by tying up the Border Patrol. Other entities of the Immigration and Customs, Enforcement (ICE) are faced with thousands of children to divert their attention from the real business at hand. Then there are the millions of dollars the federal government has to assign to the problem. If it is true that one of the main questions law enforcement asks when a crime takes place is who benefits?, the answer to what has been happening along the border has to be the Mexican cartels.

What follows is a list of recent developments in US contributions to joint operations between both countries as reported by the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR), Latin American Studies Division. There are more than enough reasons for the cartels to try and find means to retaliate: Unarmed drones collecting intelligence on traffickers are now deployed along the border; CIA operatives and retired military personnel are training Mexican personnel at an undisclosed Mexican military base; bilateral intelligence and operational cooperation is now in effect on all major drug arrests; U.S. specialists are training federal agents in wiretaps, interrogation techniques, and running informants; bilateral intelligence operations and information sharing is on the increase; joint commands are tracking the movements of illegal drug money and money laundering schemes.

I have lived in Mexico these last fifty years. Presently my home is in San Miguel de Allende, in the state of Guanajuato in the central highlands of Mexico. We have a railroad station and to my surprise the “tren de la bestia” that travels to the Laredo, and points west to El Paso, actually passes through my town.

I drive out to the railroad crossing, and sitting beside the tracks is a group of young men and women with knapsacks on their backs. They are easy to identify. Hard times are written all over the way they dress and in facial expressions etched in suspicion and resignation, much like soldiers who have experienced one too many battles. Despite the obvious, when approached they quickly realize I pose no danger. They are willing to talk if someone will listen; that’s the only defense they can offer. One of them decides he will be their spokesperson.

I offer him 100 pesos (US$8) if he will allow me to interview him. He is more than happy considering that he has been losing weight since leaving his home town of San Pedro Sula in Honduras and spends most of the trip on the verge of starvation. He calls himself Joel. He is 22 years old and is married with two children left back in Honduras.

Beldon Butterfield: How long have you been on the rails?

Joel: Over a month.

BB: Why did you leave Honduras?

J: Honduras is in the hands of the Maras (MS-13). We live in a country where extortion by these people is a common daily occurrence. (During our conversation the word extortion will be repeated constantly). Honduras has no future. Everything I am risking is better than what my country offers. There is no one to defend us. There is no law.

BB: What kind of identification documents do you have?

J: None…my Honduran ID is back at home. To carry any kind of identification means you run the risk of having it stolen by the Maras to the south or the Zetas when we get north of San Luis Potosi (see map). Replacing them costs a lot of money.

BB: Where did you cross the border into Mexico and where did you start riding the rails?

J: I crossed at Tapachula (see map) and then had to pay a coyote/pollero (middleman) to drive us to Arriaga, where we board the train going north.

BB: Aren’t you scared of falling off?

J: That’s a real risk, so we tie ourselves down with ropes we always carry.

BB: Tell me where the train has taken you before getting to San Miguel de Allende.

J: The first train takes you to Veracruz (see map). Going from there to the border is dangerous especially with the Zetas watching the railroad tracks. Many of us change trains and take the longer but safer route. Our first important destination takes us to Mexico City. Some of us change trains and take the one going north to San Luis Potosi (see map). There are others who go west, eventually to California. In our case, most us will go to Monterrey (see map) and from there to Nuevo Laredo, where we will try crossing the border.

BB: How do you intend to do that?

J: We have no idea. This is our first trip. Maybe we will join up with others who have been across before.

BB: Tell me, why did you get off the train here in San Miguel de Allende?

J: This town is considered a sanctuary and beyond the control of gangs to the south and north. Everyone knows that there are many gringos who live here (approximately 10,000). They are very good to us. There are other sanctuaries run by a Mexican group who call themselves the Betas, but the gringos are the most generous.

BB: When is the next train expected?

J: The stationmaster tells us one will stop here tonight at eight.

BB: Anything else you would like to tell me?

J: God bless you…we are not alone…there are thousands coming on the rails behind me.



The “maras salvatruchas” originated in the prisons of California and on the streets of Los Angeles. They identify each other by their bodies covered in tattoos. They are mostly dedicated to revenge and extortion. Their most publicized crime took place in Chamelecón, Honduras on December 23, 2004, when they boarded an intercity bus and killed all 28 passengers in protest against a proposal to restore the death penalty.

Los Zetas

In 1999 the Gulf Cartel leader Osiel “El Mata Amigos” (friend killer) Cárdenas Guillén hired a group of 31 former elite soldiers from the Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFE), the precursor of the Cuerpo de Fuerzas Especiales/Mexican Special Forces. Their job is to carry out reprisals against those law enforcement agencies that threaten the cartels as well as mete out justice to those people on the cartels’ payroll who have decided to turn on their paymasters. These traitors are not only to be tortured before being killed, but their families are also fair game. Their signature executions turn out to be beheaded bodies that often became visible in public places, such as hanging from bridges. The severed heads also are put on display as a warning to those who don’t understand that there are only two options, plomo o plata/lead or silver. Lately they have turned against the civilian population.

Beldon Butterfield is the author of the nonfiction book MexicoBehind The Mask, Potomac Books, Washington, D.C., December 2012


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