The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail

“A revelatory work of love and hair-raising courage.” – New York Review of Books
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The Economist & The Financial Times

One day a few years ago, 300 migrants were kidnapped between the remote desert towns of Altar, Mexico, and Sasabe, Arizona. A local priest got 120 released, many with broken ankles and other marks of abuse, but the rest vanished. Óscar Martínez, a young writer from El Salvador, was in Altar soon after the abduction, and his account of the migrant disappearances is only one of the harrowing stories he garnered from two years spent traveling up and down the migrant trail from Central America and across the US border. More than a quarter of a million Central Americans make this increasingly dangerous journey each year, and each year as many as 20,000 of them are kidnapped.

Martínez writes in powerful, unforgettable prose about clinging to the tops of freight trains; finding respite, work and hardship in shelters and brothels; and riding shotgun with the border patrol. Illustrated with stunning full-color photographs, The Beast is the first book to shed light on the harsh new reality of the migrant trail in the age of the narcotraficantes.


  • “The graceful, incisive writing lifts The Beast from being merely an impressive feat of reportage into the realm of literature. Mr. Martínez has produced something that is an honorable successor to enduring works like George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier or Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives.
  • “To understand the dramatic realities faced by the migrants who flee northwards to find work in the United States, Óscar Martínez literally jumped trains and dodged killers. He deserves praise not only for his efforts, and for what he writes about, but because he writes so very well.”
  • “A heartbreaking book about the world’s most invisible people. A revelatory work of love and hair-raising courage.”
  • “The Beast is extraordinary, first, for the courage that Martínez summoned to write it; and, second, for the hidden lives he reveals. No other writer has got this close to a migration that Amnesty International estimates left 70,000 unaccounted for between 2006 and 2012. Read together, the vivid personal stories told here have the force of a novel, the bravery of the migrants holding up a terrible mirror to the gang violence of Central America, the grotesque institutional breakdown of backcountry Mexico, and the callousness of the US, which once fanned civil wars in Central America and now turns its back on the problems those conflicts helped create. Yet if Martínez feels anger, he does not show it. Instead, his precise, empathetic and often poetic language summons rage and pity but also admiration in the reader.”
  • “The most extraordinary (and harrowing) book I read this year. Beautiful and searing and impossible to put down.”
  • “Óscar Martínez has written a gale-force book, a sweep across the equally daunting criminal and physical landscapes from the vantage point of those at the war’s coalface: Central American migrants crossing Mexico by train, road and on foot through scrub and desert, chasing the phantasmagoria of America, such is the misery or danger back home … Martínez is clearly a wonderful listener––journalism’s rarest and most important attribute—and this makes his prose resound with raw authenticity.”
  • “The world that Óscar Martínez, a Salvadoran journalist, set out to report on five years ago is so violent, depraved and hellish, you can hardly believe he survived to tell the tale ... rugged prose, beautifully translated.”
  • “Martínez is a powerful storyteller and his approach to investigative journalism is closer to anthropological immersion: He walks with migrants through bloody forests, eats with them at spartan shelters, and rides with them atop speeding trains.”
  • The Beast, like so many great books, lands on you with a revelatory frisson, the arrival of a story we didn’t know we were waiting to hear.”
  • “Óscar Martínez is a journalist of uncommon bravery and a writer of prodigious talent. The Beast is a powerful, necessary book, one of the finest pieces of journalism to emerge from Latin America in years.”
  • “A heartbreaking book about the world's most invisible people. A revelatory work of love and hair-raising courage.”
  • “Martínez's writing is eloquent, gritty, and incisive, embedded in vividly observed detail ...”
  • “Oscar Martínez is one of the bravest writers in Latin America, if not the world. He's also one of the best... he has crafted a portrait of the hellish conditions and dangers for those dreaming of a better life. 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... an essential piece of writing about some of the hardest and most hopeful young people on earth”
  • “The statistics are terrifying. Amnesty International recently estimated that as many as 70,000 undocumented migrants went missing in Mexico between 2006 and 2012. An estimated 80 per cent of migrant women are raped on the journey. Martinez – who faces untold dangers as a reporter – gets beyond these numbers with skill and subtlety. He tells the stories of individuals with names, ages, faces, families, for whom migration is a matter of life and death.”
  • “This searing account of the hardships suffered by Central American migrants headed through Mexico to the United States comes from true shoe-leather reporting.”
  • “… Martínez’s debut is the hard-won result of immersive journalism.”
  • “A remarkable book... war reporting of the finest order. 5 stars.”
  • “Drawing on eight trips accompanying illegal migrants from Central America across the border into the United States. Oscar Martínez, a Salvadoran journalist, does a beautiful job describing a world that is hellish, violent and depraved.”
  • “An extraordinary account of Central American migration to the US.”


  • El Salvador's “Government of the Cartels”: A Conversation with Óscar Martínez

    Óscar Martínez is an award-winning Salvadoran journalist who has long been recognized for his investigative work on gang violence in the northern triangle of Central America. Last month, Verso released his second book in English, A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America, a tenaciously reported, elegant treatise on how the long-lasting effects of US intervention and the War on Drugs created a region of fear; a place where citizens suffer from the some of the highest homicide rates in the world, and many are forced to flee for North America. 

    Martínez recently spoke with Alberto Arce about A History of Violence in the New York Times en Español. We present the interview below, translated by Natascha Uhlmann.

    Óscar, with 103 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in El Salvador, the highest recorded rates worldwide, is this considered a war?

    I’ve used the word war in the past, but it scares me because if true, it allows for a particular sort of discourse from the government. The president of the republic already used this term, and it legitimizes the use of policies whose effects are less than clear.

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  • Berta Cáceres’ Unfinished Work

    At the present time several international organizations are pressuring us to build “megaprojects” on indigenous lands — refineries, tourist resorts, and hydroelectric dams — that threaten to displace our people.

    But we ask, “Who are the people that make these proposals? We are the people who live in those areas, and we should have a right to decide what kind of projects are built on our lands.” - Berta Cáceres, writing in 1999

    The assassination of Berta Cáceres in the pre-dawn hours of March 3 came as a shock to Honduras and to Latin America watchers around the world. Berta, a vibrant woman with a glowing smile, was still young  and seemed too full of life, too driven and too determined, to be cut down.

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  • Óscar Martínez, Sala Negra, and El Salvador: an Introduction by Jon Lee Anderson

    Jon Lee Anderson is a war correspondent and an investigative journalist for The New Yorker. The following is his introduction to Óscar Martínez's A History of Violence

    Photo by Pau Coll,

    In A History of Violence, Oscar Martínez befriends a contract killer living in a small Salvadoran town. The killer, the Hollywood Kid, has ratted out numerous former accomplices to police, but, sensing that the government doesn’t care enough to protect him, he fretfully awaits his execution at their hands. The Hollywood Kid has a shotgun to defend himself, but when the moment finally comes, he is defenseless, on his way home from his baby daughter’s baptism. At the burial, Óscar is accosted by his dead friend’s enemies, who appear in the cemetery to gloat and swagger.

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Other books by Óscar Martínez Translated by Daniela Maria Ugaz and John Washington Introduction by Francisco Goldman