Keith Dannemiller on La Bestia

Guest Post: Keith Dannemiller

The Mexico City-based photographer recounts his experience covering the dangers faced by migrants particularly those who face “La Bestia.”  To learn more about Keith and his work visit his website.


Baby Pictures

One month ago I photographed babes in the arms of mothers who were climbing atop a hulking brute of a locomotive. They were courageously trying to protect their infants by making a get away northward, through a land full of monsters.

Before beginning this odyssey in southern Mexico, most had left untenable situations in Honduras: San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa, La Ceiba and the Cayos Cochinos were places they said they once lived. According to their stories, they had traded a living hell at home for a temporary one in a land where they knew the devil stole their money, trafficked their sex and maybe took their lives, in exchange for letting them ride the railroad he now controlled.

They had just a flimsy, illusory notion of a new life in the US for themselves and the kids accompanying them. If they make it. Si Diós quiere. Their belief in a different lot, sown from fear and fed by rumor, would, nonetheless, help to get them through the sweltering day sand terrifying nights to come.

The river is low at this time of year before the rains begin.You can roll up your pant legs, remove your shoes and tie the laces together, sling them over your shoulder and wade across the Rio Suchiate from Tecún Umán, Guatemala to Ciudad Hidalgo in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Or for 20 Mexican pesos, you can hire a boatman to pole you through the shallow waters while you sit on a jerry-built platform made of under -inflated monster truck tire inner tubes and discarded, flat commercial pallets. Many migrants heading north choose this entry point into Mexico, because immigration controls on the river are lax and more than likely non-­existent.

If a rare INM (Instituto Nacional de Migración, Mexican immigration control) agent happens to be waiting on the other side, a short financial discussion between him and your guide will let you continue on your way.

Before 2005, after crossing the Suchiate, the journey on La Bestia, this infamous freight train ridden by the intrepid and desperate, began in Ciudad Hidalgo. Hurricane Stan changed all that. Some 240 kilometers of track were damaged and the migrants and refugees who had entered Mexico without papers had to now make their way northwest to the town of Arriaga, Chiapas. Back then, as now, this part of the journey was done either on foot, or in a series of buses, trucks and local public transportation.

Although the company that operates the train line here, Ferrocarriles del Istmo de Tehauntepec, promises to reopen the Ciudad Hidalgo ­Arriaga leg, Arriaga continues to be one of the necessary assembly points in the south for those boarding La Bestia.

I was photographing for the IOM, the International Organization for Migration, and wanted the work to show the current conditions of migrants in southern Mexico, as they head north to the U.S. border. This movement of truly epic proportions, is now fueled not so much by economic necessity, but increasingly by drug ­related violence in Central America.

The migrant of yesterday has become the refugee of today. The photos had to show, on an intimate, human scale, this demographic change that is taking place.

After spending a day at various points along the Rio Suchiate, we headed to Huixtla and the San Francisco de Asis migrant shelter. I was accompanied by two fearless and dedicated women, Rosa García Ita of UNHCR and Jacqueline Villafaña of the IOM. While monitoring the situation along the migrant route by phone, they received word that the cars of La Bestia, after sitting idle for 8 days, were being assembled in Arriaga for the trip north. We made the two hour trip by car and arrived at eleven o’clock to an ant-­like progression of people advancing up the sides of the railway cars under an unforgiving sun. The Beast was preparing to be ridden.

“The pictures are there. You just take them.”

I photograph a lot on the streets of Mexico City and in that work have come to believe that these words of the influential photojournalist Robert Capa express perfectly what I attempt to do. Patience,vision, experience all have their role in forming an expressive image, but most important is ‘being there’. To paraphrase Capa, that day in Arriaga, ‘the pictures were everywhere.’And I think that because I had never encountered such a scene anywhere before, the images were abundant.They were easy to make, photographically speaking, but it was difficult  to look at women, babies, young kids,whole families making their ways up the ends of the cars with a backpack, a bottle of water and a piece of cardboard. The babies and kids who couldn’t make it to the top on their own had to be  hoisted, pushed or carried. Teens and pre­teens in groups of four or five, lent a hand to each other on the ladders. I couldn’t help thinking that maybe just last week they were doing much the same, but while hanging around a jungle  gym at school.

Looking through a camera gives a photographer one level of separation from reality and many say, permits the objectivity necessary to present the ‘truth’.  I don’t think so. The making of a photographic image is a finite collection of subjective decisions, beginning with, more likely than not,the ‘what’ that you choose to photograph.  Observing this ominous starting scenario to a dangerous journey, I was forced to ask myself, for visual and technical reasons,but for personal ones too, ‘What is going on?’

The photographs that are present here are meant to answer that question, and generate others about the pasts and the futures that they embody. What exactly is going on in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala that so many unaccompanied young kids have no choice but to leave? What will happen further on up this rail way line to the mother with a babe in arms when the monsters appear and impose their brutal revisions?

A Facebook comment on the shared essays aid getting on board that train with your baby was insanity.   I disagree. Resigning oneself to staying behind in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, that’s what is without hope and downright insane. Given the choice, leaving home and boarding ‘La Bestia’ is truly an act of courage.

Keith Dannemiller

México, DF


2 Lawyers Among 8 Killed On Monday In Juarez…EP Times

This EP Times article summarizes some of the public career of Juarez attorney Salvador Urbina, murdered on Monday afternoon in the city… There were at least two murders reported yesterday, so the death toll for May is now at about 50–the most violent month so far this year. I do not claim to know why Urbina was murdered, though I would point out that his public statements and actions in the years of extreme violence in the city pointed out malfeasance of government officials, notably the brutality of the municipal police under Julian Leyzaola and the false prosecution of El Paso teacher Ana Martinez. He also frequently commented in the media on government malfeasance. -Molly

Only 73 Victims Of Forced Disappearance Found…Garcia Cervantes

In an interview with Animal Politico, the former subprocurador for human rights in the office of the Mexican Attorney General, Ricardo Garcia Cervantes, says that the declarations from the Secretary of Government, Osorio Chong, regarding the numbers of disappeared people in Mexico are false.

Garcia Cervantes was appointed to head a special office to locate the 27,000+ disappeared people… He resigned yesterday.

In the interview, he says that the government never took the effort seriously and did not provide adequate personnel or resources to do the job.

Osorio Chong said last week that thousands of the missing persons had been recovered; Garcia Cervantes says actually only about 73 had been found alive… The numbers game continues… -Molly

Las Vegas Man Arrested…EP Times

Based on the details in this EP Times article, I tend to think the analysis of the El Paso police is correct.  I see no evidence that these billboards were pointed toward Juarez in any more specific manner than they are on the I-10 (running east west) and thus are visible from both sides of the border.

Not that I’m an investigator, but based on the initial reports, it certainly seemed that the actions and the messages resonated with the Occupy movement. I believe it would have been difficult to create such installations and not leave fingerprints that a US police investigation would find…

There have been hundreds of police murdered in Juarez in recent years and such actions were never advertised in any way in El Paso… -Molly

Las Vegas Man Arrested In Connection With Threatening Billboard Graffiti (El Paso Times)

Attorney Salvador Urbina Assassinated In Juarez

Juarez attorney Salvador Urbina Quiroz was assassinated yesterday in his office. A judge serving in the current city administration, César Cordero, was murdered also. The men were meeting in Urbina’s office and it is reported that 2 young men got out of a black pickup, came to the office and asked to see Urbina. The receptionist told them he was in a meeting. When he did not come out, the men took out their weapons, threatened the people in the outer office, then went into the private office, asked who was Urbina. When the men did not answer, both of them were shot to death. The shooters then left. Police and paramedics arrived, but nothing could be done for the victims.

The story indicates that two men were arrested, but no more details were provided before the paper went to press.

Salvador Urbina Quiroz had also worked as a journalist for El Diario de Juárez in 2004-2005 and for other media in Juarez. He was a leader of the Juarez legal community and was often consulted as a source by the news media as a critic of government authorities in fighting the violence. He has also served as subdirector of the state prison (CERESO). Urbina received many threats to his life and briefly fled to the US in 2011 after receiving a warning from the federal police. He had returned some time ago and continued to practice law until he was killed yesterday.

UPDATE May 27: 

In total, 9 people were murdered yesterday in Juarez. The details are in the article below. It was the most violence day so far in 2014.

Asesinan A 9 Ayer En Distintos Hechos (El Diario)


Peace Pact In Juarez…Cleanup To Come…Proceso 1960

Two reports by Jesus Esquivel from PROCESO #1960… An anonymous source in Juarez says that La Linea is still in control (or back in control) in Juarez and that professional sicarios are operating in the city to clean up the malandros–the young wannabes (los malandros que se sentían narcos)… So that the people being killed now are only those that need to be killed…  and that the city will be a good place for the good people of Juarez again… as in the days before the Calderon project turned Juarez into the most violent city in the world…  The police in Juarez, especially the municipal police, will be cooperating more than ever with this new/old regime to make sure that life gets better in Juarez and also ensure that the real  big time drug crossing business functions properly–generating more money and less violence…

The Sinaloa Cartel people have withdrawn from Juarez and the new objective (is this new?) is to get the business done as it should be done.  The real shipments to the US will continue to cross in big cargo trucks, not carried over by little guys… All those little guys trying to do business on their own (hormigas carrying loads in private cars or on foot) will be cleaned up if they haven’t been already…

DEA tells Proceso that Juarez is again (was it ever not?) a major crossing point for drugs, including more meth, though the city is less violent… -Molly

En Juárez, Paz Pactada…Pero Viene Una “Limpia” (Proceso)

See Borderland Beat’s translation of the story below.

Juarez Is Peaceful…But There’s A Clean Up Coming (Borderland Beat)

Menos Violencia, Más Anfetaminas (Proceso)

See the Frontera List post for a Google translation of the articles.


Two Bizarre Billboard Messages Startle El Paso Commuters…EPTimes

This looks much more like Anonymous agitprop estilo “Occupy” … I can see where the police and Chamber of Commerce in El Paso get excited. I’d like the trick better if it said something like “Dying from maquiladora slave wages…”  Or maybe “dying for Wall Street money laundering bankers…” Just saying…  -Molly

Two Bizarre Billboard Messages Startle El Paso Commuters (El Paso Times)

Juarez Drug Wars: Display of Threats Often Used by Cartels (El Paso Times)

Border Residents Fear Message On Mysterious Billboards (KHOU)

3 found dead yesterday in Juarez…(May 23)

Yesterday in Juarez, the decomposed body of a man was found near the Ciudad Universitaria and this morning another body was found in a garbage dump behind the Escuela de Mejoramiento Social para Menores “México”. Read the story from El Diario here

Also, late last night, police found the body of a woman buried in the patio of a house in fraccionamiento Santa Paula. Click here to read the article.
And an article today in El Diario reports that the former director of the prison system (CERESOS) in Chihuahua, Luis Alfredo Franco García, was executed in his vehicle yesterday in front of his house in Ciudad Obregon, Sonora.


Guest Post: Dream of Return By Jessica Bedolla

Guest Post:  Jessica Bedolla

Jessica Bedolla is from Chula Vista, CA and grew up in the border of Tijuana-San Diego.

She graduated from San Diego State University with a BA in Liberal Arts and Bachelor of Science in Sociology, recently earned her Master Degree from Cal State Northridge in Mass Communication.

Her background is in radio. She has worked for Uniradio Group San Diego, and Entravision Palms Springs.

She is the first one in her family to earn a college degree. During her program at CSUN she collaborated with the organizers of the Los Angeles Hola Mexico Film Festival and the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival.

She is currently launching her independent media project: Bedsol Media.


photo-32During the month of March 2014 I traveled to the border town of Mexicali, Baja California Mexico to conduct participatory observation and interviews of recent Mexican deportees. The four people that were forced back were two males, and two females. They talked about their experiences and struggles in the United States and in Mexico. Those interviewed were active citizens who contributed to their communities in the United States, but have no links or ties in Mexico anymore. The common denominator among them is that they arrived in Mexicali morally and emotionally destroyed, with no resources and no aid from the Mexican authorities. Many times they lack proper documentation, and or their education is not valid in Mexico.

The current trends in U.S. immigration policy have resulted in the expulsion of millions of usually undocumented immigrants with the largest percentages coming from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The driving forces to immigrate into the United States continue to be political and instability. Those that depart from their country of origin hope to improve their economic and social conditions and those of their families.  Yet once they arrive in the United States, they must live in the shadows to avoid detection since entering the country without proper documentation constitutes a criminal offense, which can have harsh punishments by federal authorities.

Thus to this date under the current administration of president Obama more than two million have been deported since he took office in 2009.

Furthermore, recent Statistics published by Federal Officials reported that approximately 419,000 people were deported in 2012, surpassing the target of 400,000 people per year.

Clearly, these repatriations create an atmosphere of fear, uncertainty and instability for the undocumented population livingphoto-45 in the interior and those who have been deported. Deportations of immigrants and the harsh and persistent application of the current laws directly affect mixed status families, children and spouses by tearing families apart and impacting the Latino community as a whole. One of the deportees lost everything, “my wife remarried and my kids now live in Utah, so here I am alone.”

However, when they are in Mexico they are also invisible and ignored by the government and society. A lot of times they are discriminated for being immigrants. Very few places offer some form of assistance to those who return. That is the case of Border Angels, and Hotel of the Migrant, an organization that serves as the only shelter open 24 hours 7 days a week. The site is in Mexicali and is administered by a civil non-profit organization, located few blocks from Calexico Port of Entry. Deportees are usually dropped off in the middle of the night and in poor conditions. To this day sadly, deportees are marginalized by the American government and ignored by Mexican authorities; they are trapped in a no man’s land. But they won’t give up on their dream of return.

Molly Molloy Interview With Action on Armed Violence

Here’s an interview I had some months ago with Iain Overton from the Action on Armed Violence [(AOAV), which has a central mission: to carry out research, advocacy and field work in order to reduce the incidence and impact of global armed violence.  For more on the organization click here. -Molly

In focus: Molly Molloy, Border and Latin America Specialist at New Mexico State University

By AOAV on 19 May 2014

AOAV: [Would] you say that small arms and guns have been a constant backdrop to your view of Latin American politics and immigration?

Molly Molloy: I believe that, in terms of the numbers of guns in Mexico now, many of them have kind of an origin in the United States, but not a recent origin.  They come from the United States, going back 25 years to the Nicaraguan Contra war and to the military campaigns in El Salvador and Guatemala – mostly funded by the US. And I really believe that a lot of the guns that are on the black market these days that turn up in the hands of criminal organizations  all over the hemisphere, and certainly in El Salvador and in Mexico nowadays, are remnants of that period.  In other words, they’re guns that were shipped into these places legitimately and then got into the hands of criminal groups through military deserters and these illicit groups of fighters like the group of Guatemalan soldiers that supposedly became the Zetas…