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Central American Migrants and “La Bestia”: The Route, Dangers, and Government Responses

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Central American Migrants and “La Bestia”: The Route, Dangers, and Government Responses

Repositorio Peninsula

Mexico has long been accused of turning a blind eye to Central American migrants traveling through the country en route to the United States. With the recent unaccompanied child migration crisis garnering major U.S. public and policymaker attention, the trains that have served as unofficial conduits for some of this migration have come under scrutiny, prompting the Mexican government to take action.

As many as half a million Central American immigrants annually hop aboard freight trains colloquially known as “La Bestia,” or the beast, on their journey to the United States. The cargo trains, which run along multiple lines, carry products north for export. 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. Beyond the dangers of the trains themselves, Central American migrants are subject to extortion and violence at the hands of the gangs and organized-crime groups that control the routes north.

In the past, Central Americans encountered little opposition from public authorities when crossing into Mexico and boarding a freight train. The response changed in July 2014 when the Mexican government announced measures to prevent migrants from climbing aboard the trains—including increased border patrols and road checkpoints—and the railroads ordered an increase in the speed of the trains.

This article will examine the journey aboard La Bestia, the dangers faced by migrants transiting through Mexico, and the responses of various stakeholders, including governments and the train operators, to protect and deter unauthorized migrants.

La Bestia’s Passengers: Central American Migrants

Driven by dire economic conditions and increasing violence at home, and a desire by many to reunite with relatives already in the United States, hundreds of thousands of Central Americans have made the perilous journey through Mexico to reach the United States. A dramatic surge in unaccompanied child migration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras has occurred over the past two years—with more than 50,000 Central American minors intercepted at the U.S.-Mexico border during the first 11 months of this fiscal year, up from 10,146 two years earlier—accompanied by significant increases in migration of adults as well.

For some, La Bestia has been one of the only options for transiting through Mexico. Central Americans require a visa to travel to Mexico, and with Mexican officials patrolling the roads, bus stations, and airports—but not (until recently) the cargo trains, La Bestia proved a logical route for migrants without visas. There are no passenger trains traversing the country, leaving cargo trains as one of the few means of transport available to cover the distance to the U.S. border.

Migrants riding La Bestia are likely to be some of the poorest, as the costs of riding the train (bribes, gang tariffs, etc.) still are cheaper than paying a smuggler to organize and facilitate the journey. Those hitching a ride on the cargo trains are also less likely to have access to information networks or contacts in the United States who can connect them to trusted smugglers and help fund the journey. And they tend to be adults; unaccompanied children arriving in Texas typically travel through Mexico by bus or van on journeys arranged by organized smuggling networks. For those who can’t afford smuggling fees that go as high as $10,000, a ride atop the train represents a quicker way to cross Mexico.

Freight Train Routes through Mexico

La Bestia refers to cargo trains transporting a variety of products to the United States, including food, automobiles, transportation equipment, cement, chemicals, and plastics. The trains are operated by several private companies, including Companía de Ferrocarriles Chiapas-Mayab in the south, Ferrosur de Mexico in the center of the country, Kansas City Southern de Mexico in the east, and FerroMex in the north.

Figure 1. Train Routes Used by Central American Migrants in Mexico

Source: Martin Gabriel Barron Cruz, La Bestia: La tenue linea entre la migracion y la trata de personas (Mexico: Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Penales, 2013), www.inacipe.gob.mx/stories/publicaciones/temas_selectos/LaBestia.pdf.

Rail lines traverse Mexico from the Guatemalan border in the south, to the U.S. border in the north (see Figures 1 and 2). Migrants’ journeys may originate at a number of places on the rail lines. The two terminals closest to the Guatemalan border are Tapachula in the state of Chiapas and Tenosique in the state of Tabasco.  Both routes converge in southern Veracruz state and continue to Lecheria in the state of Mexico. At Lecheria, migrants may follow one of three routes depending on the intended point of entry to the United States: Those wanting to cross through the Rio Grande Valley and other points in eastern Texas take the Gulf route (see pink route in Figure 2). To cross into Arizona or California, migrants follow the Pacific route (see green route in Figure 2), and to cross into western Texas or New Mexico migrants follow a route through the center of the country (see blue route in Figure 2).

In May 2014 the train route between Tapachula and Arriaga, Chiapas, was reopened after nine years of inactivity due to damage caused by Hurricane Stan in 2005. The reopening of this section has allowed Central American migrants to board the train at Tapachula, one of the most significant points of entry along Mexico’s border with Guatemala.

Figure 2. Train Routes by Intended Entry Point to the United States

Source: “Migrantes eligen la ruta del Pacifico,” El Informador, May 23, 2011, www.informador.com.mx/primera/2011/294583/6/migrantes-eligen-ruta-del-pacifico.htm.

The journey to the United States is often long and involves several steps. Before migrants can get on the train they must travel from their homes through Central America to the Mexican border. Crossing the border is relatively easy as, even with increased surveillance, it is lightly patrolled and wide sections remain porous. Once in Mexico, migrants must then travel on foot or by vehicle to the nearest train terminal, where, usually after paying bribes or protection fees, they climb atop a railcar to start the first leg of their journey north. The travelers frequently change train lines along the way, often stopping at shelters run by civil-society organizations. Once they near the U.S. border migrants disembark and pay a smuggler (known as a “coyote”) to enter the United States. As the trains are subject to inspection and surveillance close to the border, it is nearly impossible for a migrant to cross the U.S.-Mexico border aboard the train.

Dangers Aboard the Train

The dangers encountered on the journey through Mexico, whether on foot or on La Bestia, are many, including injury or death from unsafe travelling conditions, gang violence, sexual assault, extortion, kidnapping, and recruitment by organized crime.

Migrants travel on top of the train with nothing to hold on to. Accidents caused by train derailments and falls because of changes in speed or migrants falling asleep are common and have resulted in countless injuries, amputations, and sometimes death.

Beyond the very real danger of falling, migrants are vulnerable to the gangs and organized-crime groups that control the routes. At each stage of the journey, migrants are subject to extortion, theft, rape, and even murder if they fail to pay “protection” and other fees established by these groups. Gang members have been known to push migrants off moving trains if they are unable to pay. A report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found that members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang violently control the southern migration route in Mexico. With the recent reopening of the train route from Tapachula to Arriaga, Central American gangs have increased their presence in Chiapas. The gangs have begun working in concert with Mexican organized-crime groups such as Los Zetas—each controlling different territory along the route, each demanding bribes and threatening violence in return for safe passage. Organized groups have kidnapped—and sometimes murdered—thousands of migrants throughout Mexico. The Mexican government does not publish official statistics on migrant kidnappings, but the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), an autonomous institution funded by the government, reported more than 11,000 abductions of migrants between April and September 2010. Sexual violence, particularly against female migrants, has also been reported.

Gangs and members of organized crime are not the only ones benefitting from migrants’ journeys on La Bestia. Many pay smugglers to facilitate their passage. 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 addition, as migrants are thought to be carrying cash for bribes, they have become the target of robbery and violence from bandits. As most are traveling without proper documentation, many are fearful of reporting crimes and abuse against them to the Mexican authorities. In light of this, members of the Zetas and Maras have taken to policing the trains, removing other criminals even while exploiting the migrants for their own gain.

Formal Responses to Migrant Use of La Bestia

Mexican authorities have not developed a comprehensive policy to directly address the widespread use of the trains as a mode of transportation for migrants. Ad hoc responses have come from the federal government, state governments, and the private companies that operate the trains. These responses have been disjointed, uncoordinated, and often in reaction to particular events widely covered in the news.

Government Responses

Facing pressure from the United States to disrupt the flow of Central American migrants, Mexico has implemented new security and surveillance measures with U.S. assistance.

In July, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced a plan to make the southern border with Guatemala more “orderly,” though few details were elaborated. Migrant testimony reports an increased presence of immigration officials in pickup trucks patrolling the roads and bus stations en route to the train line. Raids on hotels and restaurants where migrants shelter in traditional transit cities have occurred. And immigration agents, in raids supported by federal police and the military, are targeting the trains, removing migrants from the train cars and detaining them. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are witnessing rising numbers of countrymen being repatriated after being deported from Mexico. And Mexico in 2013 opened an internal control checkpoint in Huixtla, Chiapas, some distance from the border, at a point controlling access to the rest of the country. The US $5.5 million checkpoint’s design and technology resemble the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego, California, with some equipment and personnel training provided by the United States through the Merida Initiative. Funding for two additional checkpoints has been approved.

The implementation of the checkpoints can be seen as an increased effort by the Mexican government to better secure the southern border, a key U.S. demand for many years, as well as export of the border fortification strategy in place at the U.S.-Mexico boundary. While it is too early to assess the long-term impacts of these policies on migration flows, migrants have begun taking new routes through more hazardous territory in order to circumvent the checkpoints.

Previous government responses to illegal travel on the trains have focused on protection in reaction to tragic events. On August 25, 2013 a cargo train derailed in southern Mexico, killing at least six people and leaving hundreds of migrants stranded in Tenosique, Tabasco. President Peña Nieto made public statements on this incident and directed the federal government to help the migrants affected by the accident. The response was incident-specific, offering no broader policy to prevent migrants from riding cargo trains. The acknowledgment and government-mandated assistance contrasts with the lack of official response to other train accidents, particularly in September 2013 and February 2014, in which no fatalities were reported, but migrants were injured and left stranded.

Some state governments have also responded. On March 30, 2014, the state of Veracruz filed a lawsuit against the freight companies Ferrosur and Kansas City Group for allowing Central American migrants to ride their trains. Since then, national and international media have reported hundreds of stranded migrants due to higher security and surveillance by the freight companies, preventing people from hopping the train.

Responses by the Mexican government demonstrate the struggle to simultaneously develop policies that tackle border enforcement, increased security, and the protection of human rights. On one hand, the government is deploying more law enforcement, building more internal checkpoints, and increasing surveillance along its border with Guatemala. On the other, it tries to protect migrants through initiatives such as Grupo Beta, an unarmed humanitarian assistance force that provides migrants medical help, search and rescue, and temporary shelter. Despite these initiatives and the implementation of a 2011 immigration law that enshrines the human rights of migrants, several reputable nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) including Amnesty International, Sin Fronteras, and Catholic Relief Services have documented the abuse of power by various Mexican authorities, including agents from the National Migration Institute, municipal governments, and state police. 

Train Operator Responses

The third response has come from the train companies themselves. In addition to increased surveillance due to pressure from state governments, some rail companies have set up small cement posts along sections of track in areas where significant numbers of migrants are known to board, seeking to prevent them from running alongside a moving train and boarding.

Chiapas-Mayab, the company that operates the southernmost rail segment, has announced a 6 billion peso (US$460 million) initiative in conjunction with the federal government, to increase the train speed. The stated goals include increasing freight transportation efficiency and preventing migrants from riding atop the train.

International Responses

The U.S. government has also taken steps to dissuade migrants from using La Bestia.  As part of a multimillion-dollar campaign to deter illegal immigration, U.S. Customs and Border Protection hired a public relations company to compose a song that tells of the dangers faced when riding La Bestia. The song has had widespread airplay on radio stations across Central America.

Status Quo or Sustained Efforts to Stop Travel Aboard La Bestia?

Transit across Mexico aboard the freight trains has occurred for years, the route of choice for many without proper documentation or the financial resources to seek passage elsewhere. The urgency of the recent unaccompanied child migration crisis and the contentious debate over immigration policy in the United States have placed La Bestia under a unique spotlight.

What remains to be seen is whether efforts to pressure the Mexican government and freight operators to limit migrants’ travel aboard the trains will result in the development and implementation of a sustainable policy, both deterring and protecting migrants, that will endure long after the furor over the unaccompanied child migration crisis dies down.


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