The Mexican government has announced a new strategy to stop migrants from hopping the infamous north-bound freight train known as “The Beast,” a plan that would cut off a route that has been used by millions of people seeking undocumented entry into the United States.
The Ministry of Communications and Transport (Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Transporte – SCT) made the plan official via publication in the federal gazette on August 23, the first time the government has laid out a detailed strategy for taming The Beast (La Bestia) since it launched the Southern Border Program in July 2014. That program aimed at “bringing order to the migratory flow” resulted in large increases in the number of migrants detained by Mexico.
*This article was translated, edited for clarity and length and published with the permission of Animal Politico. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.
In one of the plan’s first steps, the transport ministry announced it was taking over management of The Beast’s railway line in southern Mexico, reportedly stripping that concession from private freight operator Chiapas-Mayab Railroad Company (Compañía de Ferrocarriles Chiapas-Mayab – CFCM).
The line covers thousands of kilometers of track running from the Yucatan to Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, on Mexico’s east coast; as well as the Chiapas branch stretching 500 kilometers from the Guatemala border to the Pacific port of Salina Cruz, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
The ministry justified its decision on the basis of “national security” and concerns over undocumented migration, adding that CFCM had abandoned and badly maintained some branches of the line. The company issued a statement disputing the government’s claims. CFCM said the transportation ministry has been in charge of the decrepit Chiapas branch of the railway since 2007 and the SCT bore “exclusive responsibility” for the “shameful service” on that section of track.
The SCT’s plan says that “new security measures” are needed due to attacks on the railway related to the “migratory process originating at the country’s southern border and the presence of criminal groups that operate in this area.”
The prescribed measures include the creation of monitoring and vigilance posts along the route equipped with drones capable of aerial surveillance. CCTV security cameras would be installed at “strategic points” such as train yards, switching stations, tunnels and in towns and cities the rails pass through. Migrants prefer these areas because they can hop trains with less risk of injury. Hundreds of people have lost limbs to The Beast.
Other measures contemplated in the plan include: fencing off portions of track; improved lighting in switching stations; private security brigades; and the use of motion sensor alarms. The plan calls for guards of the private security companies that will be hired to watch the line to be trained and certified, and for the “installation of security command centers at strategic points” along the line.
The SCT noted that no such security measures were contemplated in the concession contract with the Chiapas-Mayab company, signed in 1999, making “the necessity of rescuing the concession evident.” The ministry said the government should assume control of the line until a new concession can be arranged.
The SCT pronouncement is not the first time the Mexican government has said it would stop migrants from using the railways. In July 2014, Minister of Interior Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said migrants would be stopped for their own safety from using Mexico’s freight trains to reach the United States.
“We will bring order to The Beast,” Osorio Chong said. “The migrants will not be able to get on the train.” The minister’s 2014 speech came a few days after President Enrique Peña Nieto unveiled his Southern Border Program. While that program was supposed to protect migrants, it led to mass detentions and the deportation of thousands of migrants, especially to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Although the government did not at the time say how it planned to prevent migrants from climbing onto the north-bound freight trains, Animal Politico’s report Southern Border: The Hunting of Migrants (Programa Frontera Sur: Una Cacería de Migrantes) documented measures that were being implemented. The roofs of train cars were modified so that migrants could not travel on top of the trains, police conducted migrant roundups in freight yards, and fences and posts were installed to obstruct pedestrian access to passing trains.
In addition, companies with government concessions to operate the railroad, including Ferromex, hired private guards. This led to complaints in Tlaxcala and, more recently, in Queretaro, where the González and Martínez Migrant Ranch (Estancia del Migrante González y Martínez) denounced that the guards were shooting at migrants and threatening human rights activists who offer migrants food and water along the way.
The SCT’s announcement that it was taking over The Beast prompted protests from migrant advocates who said the government was hiding its push to target migrants behind the pretext of improving rail service.
“We knew that the federal government was planning something with the announcement that it was taking back the Chiapas-Mayab concession,” said Alberto Donis, who manages a hostel for migrants called Brothers Along the Road (Hermanos en el Camino) in Ixtepec, Oaxaca. “We knew that it wasn’t to improve the travel routes, but rather an attempt to contain the migratory flow in a strategic zone.”
*This article was translated, edited for clarity and length and published with the permission of Animal Politico. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here. Photos by Manu Ureste.