Riding the Beast to El Norte

Read the explosive first chapter of Oscar Martinez's investigation of the immigrant trail from South America to North

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Oscar Martínez is one of the bravest writers in Latin America, if not the world. He's also one of the best. Having co-launched the region's first digital newspaper, ElFaro.net, the El Salvadoran writer's award-winning investigations have taken him on the trail of the cartels and the region's most violent and corrupt. Most recently he, along wioth his photographer friends Edu Ponces and Toni Toni Arnau, took eight of the most dangerous train journeys on earth, travelling with the illegal migrants through Central America, going north on the rails to the USA.

Treated by most – including the "Coyotes" that prey on these stateless dreamers – as anonymous human flotsam, Martinez has crafted a portrait of the hellish conditions and dangers for those dreaming of a better life in El Norte, telling the story of just a few of the 20,000 who try their luck every year. These travels were collected by Verso, and have just been published under the title The Beast – the migrant's telling name for the train on which they cling so desperately. For such devastating subject matter, it's a fluent, humane, readable book, and one of the most capital-I important, capital-I inspiring released this year.

Just published by Verso, below we present the first chapter of the book – the story of how three brothers ran from the gangs of El Salvador. Bookmark the page, then buy the book – it's a long, but essential piece of writing about some of the hardest and most hopeful young people on earth. 

On the Road: Oaxaca

There are those who migrate to El Norte because of poverty. There are those who migrate to reunite with family members. And there are those, like the Alfaro brothers, who don’t migrate. They flee. Recently, close to the brothers’ home in a small Salvadoran city, bodies started hitting the streets. The bodies fell closer and closer to the brothers’ home. And then one day the brothers received the threat. The story that follows is the escape of Auner, Pitbull, and El Chele, three migrants who never wanted to come to the United States. 

“I’m running,” Auner says, his head ducked down, not meeting my eyes, “so I don’t get killed.”

The first time I asked him, though, he told me he was migrating to try his luck. He said he was only looking for a better life, una vida mejor, which is a common saying on the migrant trails. But here in southern Mexico, now that Auner and I are alone, with the train tracks next to us and a cigarette resting between his lips, now that we’re apart from his two younger brothers who are playing cards in the migrant shelter’s common room, he admits that the better word to describe his journey is not migration, but escape.

“And will you come back?” I ask him.


“No,” he says, still looking at the ground.

“Never.”


“So you’re giving up your country?”


“Yeah.”


“You’ll never return?”


“No ... Only if anything happens to my wife or daughter.”

“And then you’ll come back?”

“Just to kill them.”


“Just to kill who?”


“I don’t even know.” 

The voyage by train would have Auner and his brothers clinging like ticks onto its roof struts for at least six hours en route to Medias Aguas, Veracruz

Auner knows nothing of the men he runs from. Back home, he left behind a slew of unsolved murders. Now, blindly, he runs and hides. He feels he has no time to reflect. No time to stop and think what connection he and his brothers might have with those bodies on the streets.

Auner left El Salvador, along with his wife and two-year-old daughter, two months ago. Since then he ’s guided his two brothers with patience and caution. At only twenty years old, he tries hard to keep his fear in check so as not to make a false step. He doesn’t want to fall into the hands of migration authorities, doesn’t want to get deported and sent back to El Salvador, which would mean starting again from scratch. Because no matter what they’re put through or how long it takes, they must escape, he says, they must get north. To El Norte. “Get pushed back a little, okay,” Auner says, “it might happen, but we ’ll only use it to gain momentum.” 

Without a word, Auner gets up, ending our conversation. We walk down the dusty sidewalk, back toward the migrant shelter. We ’re in the small city of Ixtepec, in the state of Oaxaca, the first stepping-stone of my journey with them. At the shelter, a place made up of palm-roof huts and half-built laundry rooms, Auner huddles next to El Chele and Pitbull, his younger brothers. El Chele has a boyish face, light skin, and a head of curly hair. Pitbull has the hardened face of an ex-con and the calloused hands of a laborer. Auner is the quiet one. 

A humid heat wraps around us, so thick I feel I could push it away. The brothers are talking about the next step in their escape. There’s a decision that needs to be made: stay on the train like stowaways, or take the buses through indigenous mountain towns with the hope that they can avoid checkpoints. 

A journey through the mountains would take them through the thick green Oaxaca jungle, well off the migrant train trails. But it’s a route studded with checkpoints and migration authorities, and usually only taken with the help of a guide, or coyote. Auner first heard of the trail thanks to Alejandro Solalinde, the priest who founded and runs this migrant shelter. Solalinde is a man who understands the value in giving an extra option, even one so dangerous, to those who flee.

In contrast, the voyage by train would have Auner and his brothers clinging like ticks onto its roof struts for at least six hours en route to Medias Aguas, Veracruz, the home turf of Los Zetas. They’d then have to hide in ditches on the outskirts of the town, waiting for the next train, ready at any moment to sprint for their lives. 

The infamous gang known as Los Zetas was formed in 1999 by the narco-trafficker Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, founder of the powerful Gulf Cartel, arrested in 2003, and a US prisoner since 2007. Cárdenas originally created Los Zetas to act as his organization’s armed wing, composed of thirty-one elite Mexican army deserters – some of whom had trained at the US-led School of the Americas—but the group expanded and evolved, becoming increasingly, violently autonomous. By 2001, the group had already added to its brutal money-making repertoire the mass kidnappings of undocumented migrants for ransom money. By 2007 it had broken away to form an independent cartel. In 2009 the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) called the Zetas, simply, “Mexico’s most organized and dangerous group of assassins.” 

Of every ten migrants from Central America, six are apprehended and mugged by Mexican migration authorities

The answer to the Alfaro brothers’ question might seem obvious to someone not familiar with the rules of the migrant trail. Mexican cartel violence has become increasingly notorious through media portrayal, Mexican and US government denunciations, and the cartels’ own use of a gallows-style display of their mutilated murder victims. But the risks of traveling through the mountains, so as to avoid Los Zetas, aren’t inconsiderable. Of every ten migrants from Central America, six are apprehended and mugged by Mexican migration authorities – a potential catastrophe for these guys who pocket, as if they were jewels, the $50 their father sends from the United States every four days. They use this treasure to buy their once-a-day ration of tortillas and beans, which they eat quickly, hidden in thickets, before continuing their escape. And getting caught by the Mexican authorities doesn’t just mean returning home with their heads down and their pockets empty. Their return could cost them their lives, as could riding atop the train, which continuously throws migrants off its back, dismembering or maiming so many. 

Just today I learned that a boy named José lost his head under that train. José was the youngest of three Salvadorans I traveled with two months ago. We skirted highways and ducked from authorities as we ventured through another of the high-traffic points along the migrant trail, La Arrocera. His decapitation, I’m told, was a clean cut. Steel against steel. It happened close to Puebla, some three hundred miles north of where we are now. 

Though the dream is easy, the voyage is incredibly dangerous. Sometimes it’s simply the exhaustion that kills you. Sometimes it’s just one slow moment of slipping into sleep, and your head is gone from your body. 

José was shaken off by one of those train shudders that so easily dislodge you when you’re worn out. Marlon, who was traveling with José at the time, was the one who broke the news to me. He confessed José was fleeing too. But unlike Auner, José knew exactly what he was fleeing from. He escaped from the gangs that closed down his bakery. They were imposing an unpayable extortion tax: $55 a week or he’d be killed. The entire company went to ground, then fled. Now one of them has already returned to El Salvador in a black bag.

The Alfaro brothers, Auner, Pitbull, and El Chele, will decide what they’re going to do tonight. And they know that they need to make the right choice. Otherwise they’re going to meet in front of them—their bodies hitting the street—what they meant to leave behind. 

“Hey bitch!” Pitbull heard someone call behind him. He knew the call was for him.

And when he turned he saw the muzzle of a nine-millimeter pistol sticking in his face. That’s when he dove. Before he even hit the ground he heard the shots. Two bullets pierced the face and back of Pitbull’s friend, Juan Carlos Rojas, a known gang member. A piece of Juan Carlos’s brain landed on Pitbull’s imitation Polo shirt, which he had bought in a slot machine hall in Chalchuapa, El Salvador, to impress the ladies. It was a sunny February day in 2008. 

Pitbull felt, in that moment, nothing but blind rage. It came up from his stomach and shot through his whole body. He lost control. He turned into an animal.

the cops know most of the gang members by clan, by name, by nickname, and even by rank

Pitbull looked down for a moment at Juan Carlos, who was covered in gore and plainly dead, and then he took off running, screaming incoherently at the assassin and his accomplice, who were trying to escape. But the one who’d fired the shot looked dazed. He was hunched over and heaving. Pitbull, either not caring or unaware that the man still carried the nine-millimeter, saw him as nothing but prey. The prey, a drunk who was about fifty years old, stopped again, pointed his pistol at Pitbull and said, between gasps, “Stand still, you dumb fuck, so I can aim at you!”

There was nothing to be done. Froth rose in Pitbull’s stomach, in his throat. When his prey was only a few steps away he jumped at him, his hands out like claws. The old man’s nine-millimeter fell to the ground. 

They say around these parts that rage is cured more easily with a clean fist. But Pitbull just started whaling on the man’s face. 

When two cops finally showed up, they pulled off the still raging Pitbull. Then they helped up the half-conscious old drunk. His accomplice had quietly slunk away. Being in a country like El Salvador, the cops drew all the obvious conclusions: a young man in the middle of a crime scene – a gangster for sure. The kid was the first they questioned. 

“Which gang are you in?”
 “None, you fuck,” spat Pitbull, with typical grace.
“You’re with the 18’s like your friend they killed, aren’t you?” The officer already knew about Juan Carlos, knew that he was part of the infamous 18’s. In the smattering of towns that make up this single city, Chalchuapa, even with 73,000 people, the cops know most of the gang members by clan, by name, by nickname, and even by rank. 

“You deaf or fucked up?” Pitbull said. He was calmer now, had slipped back into his youthful tough-guy jargon. The cop, on the point of getting violent, took a step toward Pitbull, but the police sub-inspector showed up, just in time, easing the tension. 

“Listen, kid,” he said to Pitbull, “they already told me you were looking for revenge. Tell me now. You want to come to court and testify so we can close this case?” 

“You’re in the game too,” Pitbull responded, refusing to go testify. 

Pitbull was seventeen years old. Already he was itching for adventure, for sharpening his edges. And this he did. A few days later, dressed as a police officer, he went to downtown Chalchuapa looking for the murderer’s accomplice who had gotten away. All day he searched through alleyways and makeshift street shops. He told me he even found it pleasurable, another adventure.

“It was ballsy to walk around in a cop’s uniform,” Pitbull told me. “Too bad we found the old fuck the easy way.” 

In the end, Pitbull went to the station to identify both the assassin and his accomplice. Pitbull and the murderers, standing face to face. 

“These are the two shits who killed Juan Carlos,” he said to an officer as he pointed them out.

But the assassins also got a good look at Pitbull that day. And in the relative calm of the moment, they were even able to remember that they’d seen him before, that they knew who he was. The Chalchuapa slums are a small world. The assassins recognized that Pitbull was the son of Silvia Yolanda Alvanez Alfaro, the woman who owned the shop next to the pupuseríaand on the other side of the Conal factory. They knew that this kid with a shaved head and a silver earring was Jonathan Adonay Alfaro Alváñez. He was a brickworker, farmworker, carpenter, plumber. A jack- of-all-trades. He was Johnny. He was Pitbull. Of course they knew him.

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Edu Ponces & Toni Toni Arnau

Pitbull: the tough guy

“You must have had some idea,” I say to Pitbull. We’re sitting on the rails of the Ixtepec train line, drinking soda and smoking cigarettes. 

After Auner told me why they were on the migrant trail, I asked—feeling as if I were asking a father for a date with his daughter—if I could speak to his two younger brothers. Auner gave me the go-ahead. I started with Pitbull. Silently we slipped out of the commotion of Father Solalinde’s migrant shelter and sat down among towering shrubs. I wanted a shielded place so that he ’d feel safe, so he ’d feel safe enough to remember.

“No, man,” Pitbull says. “I have no fucking clue who those bitches are. I was just cruising the game rooms with my friend. He told me he had to grab something at the bar. Then, real calm, he came out. We started walking and then the two old fucks just jumped out and popped him.”

“And you don’t think it’s them threatening to kill you now?” “I don’t have a clue which sons-of-bitches are threatening us.” Nothing. Not even a clue. Pitbull flees, but he doesn’t know from whom. If he were a character in a movie, of course, Pitbull would have snooped around, hit up his barrio contacts, tried to put a name to the assassins, maybe put on the police uniform again.

But Pitbull lives in the real world. He ’s just an eighteen-year-old kid steeped in the violence of one of the most dangerous countries on the continent. 

What’s more, not even the police reports contain many details. When they killed Juan Carlos—January or February, he doesn’t exactly remember – nine other men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five were killed, just in Chalchuapa. And Pitbull doesn’t even know if Juan Carlos was his friend’s real name. 

“That’s what he called himself,” Pitbull says. “But he was in a gang and he had problems in some of the other barrios. I heard people call him a lot of different names.” 

William, José, Miguel, Carlos, Ronal, Unidentified, any of these could have been Juan Carlos. All of these young men were murdered in Chalchuapa in the same month. And even if one were to know the facts of the murder, I have a hunch that, like the facts of so many other migrant murder cases, the details would be so scarce they’d simply disappear. Evaporate. It’d be as if nothing had ever happened. 

Pitbull turns to look over his shoulder at a couple of migrant women leaving the shelter. “Hey, sweethearts!” he yells. Fleeing, it seems, isn’t always a somber procession. At least not for Pitbull. He takes a drag of his cigarette, then sinks back, lying down beside the rails and propping his head on a rock. He looks up at the sky and takes another drag. His posture makes him look like he could be a patient talking to a shrink. 

All of us Central Americans were the big shits of the prison. We sold weed, cigarettes, cocaine, and we kept all the other little shits in order

After he saw that body fall, Pitbull got out of Chalchuapa for a while. Two boozy old men were being charged with homicide because he’d identified them to their faces. Leaving was the best thing. 

He went to Tapachula, a Mexican town that smells of fritters and lead, on the border with Guatemala, where one of his older brothers, Josué, aka El Chele, had been living for about five months. El Chele was working in a mechanics shop in a factory slum in Tapachula, saving up money to continue his journey to El Norte. He also had some hope that his father would call and tell him that a coyote was ready, the money paid, and all that was left to do was make the trip north. 

“Nos vamos al Norte, hijo, verás cómo ahí sí hay chamba, buen jale, buen dinero,”his father had told him in his migrant Spanish, a mix of Central American and Chicano. 

The three brothers, Auner, Pitbull, and El Chele, had never been close to one another, but recently their lives have forced them together. Auner was especially distant, working as a farmhand in rural El Salvador, waiting for his wife to bear his first child. None of the brothers called each other. They followed rural codes, a man’s campesino way, always keeping a tight cap on their emotions. 

El Chele was in good with the owners of the mechanics shop, but not quite good enough for them to let Pitbull sleep there as well. The owners did, however, let El Chele bring women to the shop and spend a slow afternoon in the back with them. And so El Chele ’s time passed in Tapachula, working at the shop and working to lure girls into the back room, but never making steady friends. In his free hours he would take a shower to wash the soot off, slick gobs of gel into his curly hair, put on an imitation designer shirt and fake Converse shoes, and then start his solitary prowl through café corners on the main plaza, through the pseudo-colonial white rotunda and through the paleterías or soda fountains where men and women gathered, and, as El Chele hoped, where they fell in love. Sometimes he’d succeed, score a date, flirt with a girl on a bench in the park. They’d eat an ice cream, and then he’d woo her back to the shop where they’d squirm their pants down. Not long after, he’d forget about her and return to his routine. 

Part of El Chele’s success was due to the fact that he doesn’t look like the typical delinquent. Unlike Auner and Pitbull, he’s fair-skinned, and the innocent look of his face matches his boyish brown curls. He doesn’t have calloused hands, and he keeps his nails clean and clipped, so you can’t tell that he’s already spent most of his young life in laboring. All of it makes him seem like somebody you could trust. 

Pitbull, on the other hand, was scraping together his life as best he could. He spent his time in Tapachula, roaming the Zona de Indeco, one of the most dangerous barrios and site of many national and foreign-owned factories. In Indeco—thanks to the giant walls, graffitied with Mara Salvatrucha gang signs, that section off the safer parts of Tapachula—walking the streets is like stepping on a spinal cord, a touchy boundary line between two countries in conflict. 

Pitbull worked those months variously as a bricklayer, a mechanic’s assistant, and a load-carrier in a market. All of it was under the table and day-to-day. He made a few friends who, as he put it, made him feel like he was living on a tightrope, always on the verge of becoming a nameless dead body lying on the street. It was that same rope on which he teetered in El Salvador when he was weighing whether or not to give in, like most of his hopeless friends, to one of the gangs. As a gang member, he told himself, at least he ’d have constant backup, and so be able to make the best of the constant fear. 

Piece of shit thug, you come to my country and do nothing but cause trouble

“It’s not that I wanted to join a gang,” Pitbull told me, in a sort of self-critical confession. “I know it’s a bitch getting into that, but I was just like all those other kids. We were street punks who didn’t go to school, just wandering around, trying to live the best we could, looking for a good time.” 

In Tapachula, having a good time means walking that tight- rope. If there’s no fear of the fall, it’s hardly worth the walk. 

And it didn’t take long for Pitbull to fall in with a new crowd. Some young thug came up to him and made an offer. “So what, you want to go fuck something up around here?”

“I’m down,” Pitbull responded. 

They started stealing bicycles from kids, grabbing women’s purses. They found most of their prey outside of schools, in middle-class neighborhoods, around the markets. One of the wallets that they stole, however, sent Pitbull back to El Salvador. After Pitbull snatched that fated wallet, he jumped on his bike and turned a corner right where a cop happened to be passing by. Since he didn’t want to ditch the bike, he pedaled up onto the sidewalk and turned down an alleyway where, for his misfortune, there was another cop. They had him cornered. He was taken down to the station. 

“Piece of shit thug,” the cop yelled at him. “You come to my country and do nothing but cause trouble. We’re going to put you away for three years so you learn not to fuck around anymore.”

Pitbull’s looks didn’t help him any: his hair on end, his head always thrown back, his eyes always squinting like he’s about to attack someone. Plus he has that insolent thug walk, that hard, body-teetering limp. 

He didn’t even try to explain that he wasn’t a gang member, that he was only a kid from Central America. The only thing that crossed his mind in that moment was the three years. 

“Three years. I’ll be twenty-one, almost. A veteran.” 

And the police wouldn’t ask him anything but what gang he was in. Pitbull looked the part, enough to have them convinced. 

In the end, the three years was only a threat. Pitbull spent eight months in a juvenile prison in Tapachula, during which time nobody visited him. Not once. Not Auner, not El Chele. Not even Doña Silvia, his mother. 

“I was fresh meat,” he said. 

His first time in the shower, somebody left him naked, stealing his shoes, pants, and shirt. But then, after a few more days, he started figuring things out. The other kids spoke the same language as he did. He overheard words like perritochavalaborischotas, and he started to feel at home. It was gang slang. Mara Salvatrucha slang. Pitbull turned back into the reckless kid he was. Speaking the language opened the door to the dominant gang in the prison. 

What does it take to survive as a young man? According to Pitbull, it takes recklessness

The Mara Salvatrucha leader was El Travieso (Naughty Boy), an eighteen-year-old Guatemalan who’d been locked up for four years, since he was fourteen, on account of three murders. Three black tears tattooed under his eye laid claim to those bodies. Next in command was El Smokie, with two black tears, and “MS” tattooed on the inside of his bottom lip. Then El Crimen (The Crime), also Guatemalan and also with two black tears. Then finally there were El Hondureño and Jairo, both from Honduras. 

“All of them were two-lettered,” Pitbull said, referring to the MS of the Mara Salvatruchas. “All of us Central Americans were the big shits of the prison. We sold weed, cigarettes, cocaine, and we kept all the other little shits in order.” 

What does it take to survive as a young man? According to Pitbull, it takes recklessness. Recklessness like Juan Carlos had, before he was killed back in Chalchuapa. Like El Travieso has. Like El Crimen. Like all his friends from childhood, and like he himself who is now on the run. And what does the recklessness do for him? It gives him “reputation.” And what’s the best way to gain that reputation? Earn a few tears under your eye, learn to run in the game, learn to make the rules, rather than lose your shirt and pants in a prison shower room. 

“The first thing I did when I joined,” Pitbull says, “was to get my clothes back.” He laughs. “I fucked up those shits who stole them from me too. To make up for the shame. Back in the bathroom, we broke those pigs in good.” 

After sitting with Pitbull for a while, listening to him reminisce about prison days, we return to the shelter and stand next to a table where some of the other migrants are busy with conquián. As they play the card game it’s as if, for this moment, they’ve forgotten about the streets back in El Salvador, and the bodies that were hitting them.

The card players laugh. They joke around, insulting each other, glad to be surrounded with fellow Salvadorans who under- stand why they’re fleeing. When one of the men puts down the wrong card in this fast-paced game, the other players howl and jeer. Moron! Ass! ¡Pendejo! ¡Burro! And the one who put down the wrong card laughs right along.

Then Auner takes me aside. He wants to tell me the decision he and his brothers have come to.

“We’re going by bus across the mountains,” he says. “But, it’s like,” he hesitates. “It ’s that... I wanted to see if you could help us out, because... It’s just that we don’t know anything.”

I agree to help them as best I can. I’ll go with them to Oaxaca. 

We decide to meet tomorrow at the Parque Ixtepec, and then, without any gesture at emotion, we say goodnight.

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Edu Ponces & Toni Toni Arnau

The drop of a pen

The morning sun hasn’t yet scorched the town. A protest march passes through the cobbled streets, headed by a pickup with a megaphone strapped to its roof, that usually makes its rounds advertising the daily paper. Those with street jobs watch the march, which is about a hundred people strong. The news truck has loaned its services to denounce the alleged rape of a local prostitute by eight policemen. Police crime here doesn’t surprise me. Two years ago I wrote a report about a gang of migrant kidnappers made up of municipal and judicial officers in this same town. 

“Son of a bitch,” I say, “eight of them raped her.” 

Auner and El Chele look down. “Qué paloma,” they mutter, an expression meaning something like “What a shame!,” and go on absently staring at the magazines of a nearby kiosk. Pitbull looks pensive. He doesn’t say anything at first, then he spits out, “But she was a whore, right?”

Who knows what it is that makes three brothers what they are. Auner is paternal. El Chele could be confused with any other adolescent. And Pitbull, he seems like he ’s been an ex-con all his life. So how did they turn out so differently? Maybe a few more minutes spent one day at the corner store or at a soccer game, maybe a punch doled out by their father in a moment of despair. It could be something that subtle, as random as the drop of a pen.

The three of us hunker down into the beater of a bus, which is filled with indigenous folks on return trips back into the moun- tains. After a while we figure out why this is the route preferred by migrants who can afford to spend a little extra. The road is a hair-raising series of steep ascents, dives, sharp turns, and broken sections of pavement, winding like an intestine through a no-man’s-land of forest and patches of rugged limestone, a path where the Mexican Institute of National Migration still hasn’t set up a checkpoint. 

Overcoming our fear and our stomachs, we finally arrive at Santiago Ixcuintepec. It’s a small indigenous town bathed in mist and drizzle in the thick of the jungle. We come to a church to rest the nine hours we have before the next bus leaves for Oaxaca City. Some young locals glare down at us as if in challenge. Pitbull veers between wanting to shoot them an even more provocative look and keeping his cool, keeping his head down, remembering that he’s on the run and that the odds of this road are stacked against him. Luckily, he says nothing.

In just a few minutes three separate locals, wearing kind faces and cheap rubber-soled sandals, offer to take us to their homes which are in small towns farther down the road. But their offers, I know, are two-faced. They tell us we’ll sleep well there, stuffed with beans and tortillas – and then each of them asks for $150. Because our bus, they tell us, isn’t coming today anyway.

They’re scammers, no doubt. Of course our bus is coming, which will cost only $8 a head for the whole ride. This little town, like so many others I’ve seen on this road, is turning into a nest of thieves. Migrants are the perfect prey because they’re invisible, always hiding from authorities.

The brothers, not knowing how to respond, turn to me. The locals’ offer clearly doesn’t sound too bad to them. Forward is forward. 

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Edu Ponces & Toni Toni Arnau

The other bodies 

“Hey, old lady, treat us to a couple sodas, would you?” It was Los Chocolates, two dark-skinned brothers from Chalchuapa, members of the 18’s. They were shouting at Doña Silvia, the Alfaro brothers’ mother. Los Chocolates hung out mornings and afternoons in front of Doña Silvia’s corner shop, often asking for free drinks. Their job for the gang was to stand guard, but they spent most of their time on the post getting high. 

It was June 19, 2008. A day like any other. 

“Them again,” Doña Silvia whispered to herself, just before she heard eight gunshots, followed by the screams of her eldest daughter who’d been standing outside the shop with her children.

Doña Silvia came out running and found her daughter and grandchildren hugging onto each other, still screaming. A taxi cut a quick U-turn and sped away down the street. Los Chocolates – Salvador, thirty-six and Marvin, eighteen – were splayed out on the sidewalk. Their faces, chests, and legs all pockmarked with bullet holes. 

The taxi, its windows darkly tinted, had parked in front of the store right next to where Los Chocolates were passing their day. Then, as though the driver wanted to ask for directions, both the front and back windows of the taxi slowly rolled down. Out peeked four nine-millimeter muzzles. 

Silvia was stunned, her gaze fixed on where the taxi had squealed away. 

It was a dizzying scene, the stuff of violence-torn barrios, where members of different gangs openly fight on the streets. Doña Silva’s shop isn’t in one of those barrios. It’s in a neighbor- hood known for its children’s soccer games, for teens chitchatting nd mothers working their corner food stands. The peace here is only seldom interrupted by the violence. This violence, though, has lately been encroaching. 

Silvia ushered the little ones into the store and closed up shop. When the police finally came to collect the bodies, there were no witnesses, nobody to answer even a single question. 

Doña Silvia Yolanda Alváñez died aged forty-four from two gunshot wounds to the head

To Silvia it was a sign. She had lived all her life in that city, had raised her kids there, but she felt a tide change that afternoon. The day after the murders she called her sons, Auner and Pitbull, and told them to get out of town, to hang out a while with their grandfather in Tacuba. El Chele was already across the border in Mexico. Silvia let him be. No one told him about the death of two known gang members only steps away from his mother’s store.

Auner and Pitbull fled to Tacuba where they worked on the farm, pushing cows out to pasture, sharpening machetes, cutting grass. For Pitbull it was a return to his childhood as a laborer, a campesino, a childhood that made him wince. That sort of work, he was convinced, led nowhere. Besides, he couldn’t get his mind off hanging out in clubs, flirting with girls, or getting another piercing. Auner didn’t like it there either. His new wife’s pregnancy had sparked in him the dream of being able to provide for his family on his own. Their grandfather paid the boys nothing but rice, beans, and tortillas. It wasn’t enough for them.

And so they decided to leave for Mexico, for Tapachula. Auner spent one last night with his girl. Pitbull got high with his boys in Chalchuapa, his first time smoking outside of prison. And the next day Auner and Pitbull got on the bus and headed north to meet their brother.

They were together again, not by choice but by necessity. They helped each other out, and yet all the while they carried on with that cool affect particular to campesinos, leaving little room for comfort or future plans made together.

Then, one night, not too long after he had arrived, Auner was walking home after a day of work, pondering his future, ambling that slow pensive amble that would befit a man ten years older, when he received the call from his uncle. 

“Auner,” his uncle told him, “they killed your mom.”

Doña Silvia Yolanda Alváñez died aged forty-four from two gunshot wounds to the head, one through her forehead and the other through her left temple. The murderers were two men. The getaway vehicle was a bicycle: one man pedaling, the other riding the back pegs. They stopped in front of Doña Silvia’s store where she was washing silverware on the sidewalk next to her brother. The two men walked past the brother and surrounded Doña Silvia. Then each of them shot her in the head. 

en el camino 012
Edu Ponces & Toni Toni Arnau

The anxiety of escape 

“This is a bitch,” Pitbull says loudly, with every intention of being heard. 

The bus is chugging its way from Ixcuintepec to Oaxaca City, its headlights illuminating moths and mosquitoes and cutting through the pitch dark of the jungle. We’ve been listening to norteña music since we first boarded, and Pitbull is sick of it. He wants a taste of reggaeton. After a while, though, he calms down and nods off to the trebly beat of the bus.

El Chele and Auner are sleeping in successive rows behind him. They decided to spread themselves out, in case a cop came looking for undocumented migrants. But they still stick out enough to almost glow: three young men with loose pants and tennis shoes on a bus entirely full of indigenous folks. And they’re not just migrating, remember, they’re fleeing. You can tell. They’re the ones with the light sleep. The ones who peek out the windows when the bus comes to a stop. It doesn’t matter if the bus stops for someone to pee, or to pick up passengers, the boys get nervous every time. 

Dawn comes while we’re still in the mountains. We open our eyes and see that the dirt road we’d been traveling is now paved.

El Chele, staring out the window at the distant mountains, has hardly said a word the whole ride. But Pitbull, when awake, is the same unrestrained guy, shuffling around in his seat, trying to crack jokes, insulting passing cars, whistling the random tunes that come into his head. And Auner has been sleeping almost the entire time. When he finally wakes I notice a sad look on his face. With his brow furrowed, he sees me looking at him and shakes his head.

“What’s going on with you?” I ask.


“Just thinking the same thing over and over.”


“Your family?”


“My family.”


“What about them?”


“God. Just hoping the threats against us don’t turn against them. Those people are damn crazy. They didn’t even say who they were coming for. They only said, for the family.” 

Auner explains to me that by family he means only his two brothers, their older sister who stayed behind, his wife, and his two-year-old daughter. The rest of them, he says—his grand- father, his uncles, all of those who didn’t say a word or do a thing about his mother’s death – aren’t worth a dime to him. 

That hot night in Tapachula, when Auner got the call from his uncle, he and his brothers decided to leave immediately to try to make it in time for their mother’s burial. None of them want to walk me through that night. They only give me the shortest of phrases: it was hardwe just had to get backit was total hell

The brothers felt the purgatory of their country, they felt the force with which their country spit people out

For two days they traveled against the migrant tide, getting farther from the United States, crossing the river that divides Mexico and Guatemala. They arrived too late. They made it only just in time to see the casket lowered into the dirt. El Chele admits he had a child’s rage. He was angry, he says, but felt like crying more than lashing out. Pitbull and Auner silently knew they were in agreement – they wanted blood. But whose blood, neither knew. 

A shroud of silence fell over the body of Doña Silvia. The uncle who had witnessed the murder claimed ignorance. “No,” he said. “I don’t know anything. I really don’t. I didn’t even see them.” Their grandfather held his Evangelist bible out in front of him as if it were a shield. “You’ve got to be quiet,” he told the brothers. “Leave everything in the hands of God. It’s how He wanted it. Stop asking questions and jump into the hands of God like your mother has.” 

None of it sat well with the brothers. Months passed. The brothers looked for answers, but none came. Were the killers Pitbull testified against in the Juan Carlos murder finally getting their revenge? Was it the Mara Salvatruchas, trying to eliminate any witnesses to Los Chocolates’ murder? 

“Or maybe,” offered Pitbull, “it was some old witch that hated her for God knows what.”

Death isn’t simple in El Salvador. It’s like a sea: you’re subject to its depths, its creatures, its darkness. Was it the cold that did it, the waves, a shark? A drunk, a gangster, a witch? They didn’t have a clue. 

Months passed: two months of rage and questions, then two of resignation, and another of exhaustion. Eventually the time came for the brothers to reap what they’d sowed. All those questions sprouted not answers but threats. In one week, both their uncle, who was in Chalchuapa, and their grandfather, who was in Tacuba, received the same anonymous note. It was sent to their relatives, but addressed to the brothers. 

“Someone wants to kill you,” their uncle told them. “Someone told me they’re gonna kill you three and then the whole family.” 

That was it. The tip-off as anonymous as the threat itself. 

The brothers felt the purgatory of their country, they felt the force with which their country spit people out or dropped them dead (twelve murders a day in a country with only six million people). They packed their bags and started north, joining the pilgrimage of upchucked Central Americans. They dove into that stream of escapees. Those fleeing poverty, those fleeing death.

Because poverty and death touches them all: the young and the old, the men and the women, the gangsters and the cops. 

en el camino 020
Edu Ponces & Toni Toni Arnau

Two stories of violence 

I can’t help but think of other stories I’ve heard on these roads. I can’t help but think of the shocking indifference to receiving a death threat as if it were a part of daily life. I remember the nearly identical reactions of a Honduran policeman and a Guatemalan gangster: I had to escape. That’s what they both told me, both of them emphasizing the had

The gangster’s name was Saúl. He was nineteen years old and had spent fifteen of those years in Los Angeles with his mother. Five years ago he’d gotten involved in the 18’s. He was arrested and deported, however, when he was no longer a member – at least that’s what he told me – for robbing a twenty-four-hour convenience store. I met Saúl in Mexico. Both of us were traveling north toward Medias Aguas, hanging onto the tops of cargo trains. The headlamps cutting a brief path of light through the mountain darkness. Saúl was heading north for his fifth try at crossing over. One attempt after another, five in a row without a break, trying to get back to the United States. We cupped windbreaks around our cigarettes with our hands. He was telling me why he was running, and he kept stressing, again and again, that he had to run, that he had no other choice, that for some people in this world there are not two or three different choices. There is only one. Which is, simply, to run. 

The effect of riding the rails is always the same. On top of a train there aren’t journalists and migrants, there are only people hanging on. There is nothing but speed, wind, and sometimes a hoarse conversation. The roof of the cars is the floor for all, and those who fall, fall the same way. Staying on is all that matters when The Beast, La Bestia, a popular name for the train, is on the move.

Saúl was deported from the United States to Guatemala, a country he didn’t know. When he was sentenced, still in the United States, he was allowed to make a single phone call. He used it to get an address in Guatemala from an uncle. When he arrived in the country he’d been born in but hardly remembered, he started looking for a man he’d never known, a friend of his uncle. His search sent him to a slum neighborhood, somewhere along a river. This is what he told me. Like he was anybody walking through any neighborhood, he just walked right on in. And what happened to him is what happens to any kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing in Central America, who thinks any neighborhood is just any neighborhood. A group of thugs turned out of an alleyway and beat him straight to hell. 

When the thugs ripped off his shirt and saw the “18” tattooed on his back, they started snarling.

“Aha! A little gangster prick!” 

Saúl tried to calm them by offering the name of the man he was looking for. “Alfredo Guerrero, Alfredo Guerrero!” he called. 

Violence, as Saúl knows, can come from your own blood

The gangsters went quiet. Then, like a butcher drags a slaughtered animal, they dragged Saúl’s pulped body through the barrio, all the way into a house and left him at the feet of a man. The man had an M tattooed on one of his cheeks, and on the other, an S. 

“Why are you looking for me, you little fake-thug piece of shit?” the man said.

“You’re Alfredo Guerrero?”


“You got that.”


“I’m Saúl,” Saúl said, breathless, “I just got deported. And, I swear it, I’m your son.” 


The man, as Saúl recounted it to me on top of the hurtling train, opened his eyes as wide as possible. And then he exhaled, long and loud. And then a look of anger swept over his face. “I don’t have any kids, you punk,” his father said. 

But in the days following, the man gave Saúl a gift. The only gift Saul would ever receive from his father. He publicly recognized him as his son, and so bestowed to him a single thread of life. “We’re not going to kill this punk,” Guerrero announced in front of Saúl and a few of his gang members. “We’re just going to give him the boot.” And then he turned to Saúl. “If I ever see you in this neighborhood again, you better believe me, I’m going to kill you myself.” 

They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood. He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.

I got to know the Honduran police officer a year before I met Saúl. Her name is, or perhaps was (who knows if she ever made it to the United States), Olga Isolina Gómez Bargas. She was around thirty years old. Her story is also about a neighborhood she was barred from. And her story also has to do with two letters: MS. 

She decided to leave her country after a bullet almost bore through her head. It was a bullet from the nine-millimeter pistol she carried with her every day. Her own gun. 

Olga’s first husband was a cop who was killed by the Mara Salvatruchas. He’d made a simple mistake. He entered the El Progreso neighborhood of Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, without backup. A volley of thirty bullets left his body like a col- ander. He was killed two years before I met Olga Isolina crying on top of a train, fleeing, so she told me, from herself. 

Olga’s second husband, also a cop, was killed only a year and a half after the first. Olga had long been living in a neighborhood where the MS had a strong presence, but she’d learned to disguise herself so they wouldn’t know what she did for a living: she worked only in faraway parts of town, and she always changed into street clothes before coming home. She tried to convince her husband to take the same precautions, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He’d come home in uniform, his pistol still tucked into his belt.

And then, one day, her husband got shot three times in the neck. Pride and violence, she had learned, are never a good mix. Since her second husband ’s death, Olga started thinking about her gun as a way to escape that hurricane of violence. “I’m going to kill myself,” she would say to herself. “I’m going to kill myself and my daughters and my dog, and then we’ll have nothing left to fear.” 

But she didn’t do it. She started the escape to El Norte instead. 

Violence, as Saúl well knows, can come from your own blood. Violence, as Olga Isolina says, can thrust you into depression. Violence, as the Alfaro brothers know, can terrorize you, especially when it has no face. 

en el camino 038
Edu Ponces & Toni Toni Arnau

Goodbye boys

Downtown Oaxaca City is shining in its Sunday best when we get out of the taxi at the central bus station. Blonde chubby children hold onto balloons while parents photograph indigenous men and women selling artisan crafts in the central square. 

Auner, Pitbull, and El Chele smile at the tourists, but they’re distracted, their eyes are darting in every direction, especially behind them. They’re searching for a guide in the midst of paleta vendors and the pyramids of caramel apples. Following each other in close succession, the travel-worn brothers seem out of place – like a black-and-white picture spliced into a colored film – and they know it. 

Though I’m going to accompany them through their next step, we know we’ll soon have to say goodbye to each other. Their father has given them the cell number of a Oaxacan friend who he’d worked with in El Norte. He told his sons that his friend would give them a hand. But the brothers don’t know what this man looks like, or how much he’ll want to help. Will he be their guide? Has their father, hopefully, already paid their transit? Or might he just feed them a meal, let them rest before they continue north on their own? 

I lend them my phone to make the call. 

The difference between fleeing and migrating is becoming clearer to me. Fleeing takes speed. The boys know how to flee. Migrating, though, takes strategy, which the brothers don’t have.

On the migrant roads there are wolves and there are sheep. The three brothers, bumbling naively through the square, look nothing like wolves. They don’t even prepare themselves in case the father’s friend turns out to be a coyote. They don’t think about how they’ll try to negotiate to avoid the undeclared taxes and extra charges. If a coyote knows he’s working with fresh meat, he ’s going to try to squeeze them dry. 

Auner hands me back the phone. The friend of the father has offered them bed and board and a little advice. 

And so the brothers will continue north by themselves, without a guide. And they decide to go by train, instead of paying for another bus. They’ll start the ride on the back of The Beast, straight ahead into the region of assailants and assassins, where migration authorities have been expanding their reach and capacity.

The afternoon in the central plaza is calm. Dry leaves fall lightly and blow along the ground. Old men and women rest on benches and nod amiably at the passersby. 

On one of the benches, after shooting a look to Pitbull and El Chele, Auner says to me, “I don’t want to offend you, but there’s something we don’t get. Why do you want to help us? Why do you even care?” 

At first it seems easy to respond: so I can write your story.
 But as we ’re about to say goodbye, a lump comes into my throat. The question, I realize, is really a thousand questions. Who wants to hear the story of three more boys condemned to death? Why follow three bumpkin brothers who are running from becoming bodies on the street? What kind of story, in Latin America, is another body on the street? Why even try to help? What’s there to say about people spit out of their own country? 

But my answer is cut short. A dark man walks up to the bench. It’s their father’s friend. He makes a quick motion with his hand for the boys to follow him. I give Auner, then Pitbull, then El Chele, a quick, strong hug, and then they turn to go. I lose sight of them as they continue their escape, passing through the crowds of children and Sunday strollers. For the next few days I keep in contact with the brothers through text messages. They’ve picked up a phone along the way.

Where are you? How are you? 
Good. About to get on a bus to Mexico City.
 

Days pass. In Chalchuapa and Tacuba, young men and women condemned to violence and death become the new bodies on the street. Roberto, Mario, Jorge, Yésica, Jonathan, José, Edwin. All between fifteen and twenty-seven years old. All of them murdered in El Salvador in August and September. 

Where are you? How are you?
 On the move. About to board the train.
 

Then our communication cuts. I keep sending messages, but get no replies. I read about the massive kidnapping in Reynosa. At least thirty-five Central Americans, all riding the rails, all captured by Los Zetas. 

Where are you? How are you?

Nothing. No response.

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