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


About belenchacon

Belen is a recent journalism graduate from California State University, Northridge. She's covered a myriad of topics including: women in underserved communities, health, education equality, consumer issues, politics, career and job search. Belen is currently looking for any freelance or permanent writing opportunities. Follow her @journobelen.

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