Enrique wades through the Rio Suchiate toward Mexico, into the southern state of Chiapas, which migrants call la bestia (“the beast”). Seventeen year old Enrique knows what he will face in Chiapas: bandits will try to rob him, police will try to deport him, and gangs may kill him. It is the hardest single section of the journey. Despite the risks, Enrique pushes on.
Once he crosses the river, he spends the night in a cemetery, on top of a mausoleum to avoid the police. From here, he can easily hear the trains. It is important that he catch the first train he hears, since it might be several days until another passes. Under the protection of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, Enrique befriends a young man named Big Daddy. That night, they are both apprehended during a police raid and taken to a holding cell. Other migrants help him escape over the wall, and he returns to the cemetery to wait for a 10:00am train.
When he hears the first rumblings of the train, the cemetery around him comes to life - dozens of migrants appear from behind bushes, trees, and tombs, and all race toward the train, positioning themselves to grab onto one of its many ladders. As the train rushes past at 20 miles per hour, Enrique hoists himself up onto a hopper car.
There, he encounters an eleven year old boy who is also traveling to the Untied State to see his mother. According to the Grupo Beta, a government sponsored migrants right group, about 20%-30% of the migrants who board the trains in Tapachula are under the age of fifteen.
Enrique considers where he should hide on the train. The boxcars are dangerous, as there is little to hold on to, but la migra does not normally go up there. Inside the boxcars is worse. He could be trapped inside for days, without food or water, and die of heat exhaustion. He could hide under the cars, between the axles, but he has grown too big to fit safely. Enrique decides to settle in on top of the hopper car, and holds on for dear life. He is afraid his car will tip over.
The train begins to slow as they reach La Arrocera, a strict immigration checkpoint. Enrique fears La Arrocera; it is isolated and he is too exposed on top of the train. The other migrants begin to yell warnings. La migra is here, so Enrique jumps from car to car, finally landing on a boxcar. La migra spots him and demands he come down, even throwing rocks to force him, but he refuses. Instead, he jumps from the train into some bushes. He hears gunshots behind him.
Now, a new danger awaits him. Madrinas are men who wear civilian clothing but help the authorities capture migrants. The worst crimes against migrants, rape and torture, are attributed to madrinas. Sometimes madrians ride the tops of trains and count the number of migrants on board so they can radio ahead to the checkpoints. Even if he can avoid them, he must contend with electrified wires as he attempts to bypass the checkpoint and reboard the train.
The other major threat in La Arrocera is bandits who patrol the area, ready to rob migrants of their money and clothes. The locals are terrified of the bandits and will never testify against them in court. Similarly, the police turn a blind eye to their activities. There is a red brick house near the checkpoint where bandits often rape and kill young women. Nazario states that one in six migrant women are sexually assaulted during their journey north, according to a 1997 University of Houston study. To protect themselves, some women cut off their hair and strap down their breasts, pretending to be boys, while others write the words “Tengo Sida” ("I have AIDS") across their chest.
Enrique reaches the Cuil bridge, one of the most dangerous places on the journey north because ruthless bandits lay in wait for migrants there. Enrique makes it across unharmed. He has survived La Arrocera.
Desperate for water, Enrique approaches a nearby house. He knows that the Mexicans of Chiapas barely tolerate Central American migrants, and consider them ignorant and poor. They believe Central Americans bring disease, prostitution, and crime to the area, and take away jobs from Mexicans. Boys like Enrique are often turned away when they beg for food or water. This time, though, Enrique is lucky; he finds a nice woman who gives him water, bread, and beans. Enrique suddenly hears the horn of the train and soon reboards a hopper.
It is 105 degrees, and Enrique’s palms burn as he holds tight to the hopper, standing on the narrow ledge of the fuel tanker just inches from the wheels. The heat saps his energy, but he cannot allow himself to fall asleep, since it could mean death. Some migrants strap themselves to the train with belts or t-shirts, while others nap on the tracks, waiting for the next train. Both alternatives often leave migrants mangled or killed.
Falling asleep also makes one potential prey for the Mara Salvatrucha (MA) gangsters, who roam the train tops looking for "sleepers" (83). This gang will rob migrants mercilessly, knowing the migrants will never press charges, and have little recourse to escape while the train barrels along. Some pretend to be migrants themselves, so they can determine who has money or food. They are usually on drugs, either marijuana or crack cocaine. Migrants who resist are tossed overboard or beaten with a variety of weapons. MA gang members have skulls tattooed on their ankles, which indicate the number of people they have killed. Their ruthlessness is well known. Once, they allegedly threw a man from a train and then forced two boys to have sex with one another.
Enrique is fortunate to have befriended El Brujo, a Mara Salvatrucha member. Although not a member himself, Enrique has been protected by association because of his friendship with El Brujo. However, recently, he refused to help the MS gang get revenge on the 18th Street gang. Since then, he has been alone on the trains, and is a frequent victim of beatings by MS members.
To keep himself awake, Enrique jumps from car to car, allowing his fear to fuel his adrenaline. Other migrants take amphetamines, slap themselves, exercise, talk to one another, or sing. Soon, the night passes and Chiapas is behind him. Although Enrique knows he has a long way to go, he is proud of himself for having made it past "the beast."
Most of the migrants who had set out with Enrique have been caught, deported, killed by the trains, or felled by gangsters. The Red Cross estimates that nearly one migrant every other day loses a limb to the train. This does not include the many migrants who have been decapitated or cut in half by the trains. If a Central American migrant dies, they usually do not carry ID and are lowered unnamed into a mass grave.
Those who have lost limbs are treated by the Red Cross. However, if they are near Tapachula, they go to the Shelter of Jesus the Good Shepherd. There, Olga Sánchez Martínez tries to heal them. “No one tells me something can’t be done. Everything can be cured. Nothing is impossible,” Olga says (90). Nazario tells Olga's story. Olga suffered many indignities in her life, including cancer, after which she promised to devote her life to healing others if God would heal her. Ten years later, she remains committed to healing migrants. She brings them into her own home, founded a shelter for them, dresses their wounds, and attempts to lift their spirits. To finance her operation, she begs for donations, seeking thousands of dollars a week to buy prosthetic limbs for the migrants. Olga works for free, seven days a week, and has not had a serious illness since her promise to God.
As Enrique enters the state of Oaxaca, he disembarks the train to recoup. It is crucial to blend in to the Mexican background so as to avoid deportation. He removes his dirty yellow shirt and replaces it with a white one. He washes his arms in the stream and spends what little money he has on a haircut so he will not stick out. Most Mexicans have straight dark hair, while Central Americans tend to have curlier hair. To further blend in, Enrique must also alter his speech and word choice. For instance, agua means water in Mexico, but means soda in Honduras. Also, he must remember that Mexican weigh items in kilograms instead of pounds. Migrants also remove Central American tags from their clothing, or wear Mexican sports team memorabilia. Nazario gives many details of how Central Americans attempt to disguise their identity while recouping here.
Back in Honduras, María Isabel is persuaded by her family to stay at home. She fears for Enrique, but agrees with her mother that the dangers of traveling north far outweigh the potential benefits. She is still uncertain whether she is pregnant, and is worried that the journey could cause complications if she is.
Enrique’s eighth attempt to go north begins at a river, the Rìo Suchiate in Guatemala. The rivers in Enrique’s Journey serve as symbols of renewal. Each time Enrique crosses a river, he is entering a new phase of his travel. When he finally crosses the Rio Grande, it serves as his baptism into a new phase of his life. However, at this point, he faces the Rìo Suchiate, across which lies Chiapas, "the beast." If the Rio Grande offers salvation, the Rìo Suchiate threatens damnation. Wearing a cap which appropriately reads “No Fear,” he bravely presses on and accepts the challenge.
The scene in the cemetery, when Enrique is caught by police, illustrates an interesting juxtaposition within the story. The migrants lay on top of graves, near not only the dead but also near sites of frequent rape, attack, and murder. The migrants themselves are hunted like animals, and their deaths are sometimes undocumented, as if they had never existed at all - many are buried in mass unmarked graves. It is ironic that they should find solace and peace in a place of death when their own fates are so uncertain. They cannot even count on a dignified death, a point which must resonate for them while awaiting the train in a cemetery. However, the irony only stresses how high the stakes are for these migrants. They must accept these unfortunate ironies as part of their burden if they are to arrive at their destinations.
The train itself also serves as something of a symbol for the journey, both because it offers promise and because of its many dangers. The boxcar, as Enrique explains, is a closed container that holds cargo. When not in use, the boxcar resembles a large empty box. Nazario interviewed a migrant who had been placed inside a boxcar with forty others by their smuggler. The doors were shut and the container soon became an oven in the 100 degree weather. Several people died. It is easy to become trapped inside the boxcar, and they are also one of the first cars to be searched by la migra. The fact that this ostensibly most comfortable spot is also fraught with dangers exemplifies the contradictory nature of the train. The tops of boxcars are very unsafe, but are less frequently searched. Hoppers are usually large, open containers that carry bulk cargo like grain, sugar, fertilizer, or coal. They are lower to the ground than boxcars, and hence more often searched, but they are easier to access. The choice of car is very important and can help migrants survive, but with each decision a migrant must play the odds. In a sense, the decision is almost arbitrary considering how many factors are out of their control, but the decision must be made nevertheless.
However, the train also serves as a symbol of hope and faith. Certainly, these migrants have a deep religious faith from their culture, but their faith on this journey is more palpable - they believe they can brave the dangerous journey to make it north. The train is essential towards reaching that goal. One can determine a migrant's outlook by which name he or she uses to name the train. Some call it El Tren de la Muerte (Train of Death) or El Tran Devorador (The Train That Devours), both of which speak to its destructive potential. Others call it El Tren Peregrino (The Pilgrim’s Train), which reflects its spiritual quality. Enrique prefers to call the train El Caballo de Hierro (the Iron Horse). What he recognizes is not its spiritual potential but rather its physical strength. It reflects his persistence and determination, his belief that he will succeed through force of will.