Óscar Martínez & Edu Ponces on “The Beast” | May 18, 2016

Wednesday, May 18, 2016 | 4.30pm

CRES Talks presents Riding "The Beast" Across Mexico to the U.S. Border: Óscar Martínez & Edu Ponces Discuss Fieldwork in (Photo-) Journalism

“Crossing the Vertical Border: On the Central American Migrant Trail” series of public programming in 2016. 

In The Beast (Verso Books), the world that journalist Óscar Martínez set out to report on eight years ago is so violent, depraved and hellish, one can hardly believe he survived to tell the tale. At one end of his and photojournalist Edu Ponces journey through the migrant trail, in Central America, men and women are executed by gangs for complex reasons that very few can understand, forcing those around them to flee for their lives to the one place they think they can be safe: the United States. At the other end, hapless Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans, after weeks or months evading drug gangs and bandits across Mexico, float up on the banks of the Rio Grande. 

What makes this book and the photography that was published jointly extraordinary is that Óscar Martínez and Edu Ponces see all this first-hand. They huddled with migrants on the roof of La Bestia, the train that takes them from southern to northern Mexico on the way to the United States, threatening at any moment to grind them with its steel wheels if they lose their frozen grip on the handholds. They sit among them during hold-ups, and feel the hooded eyes of narco scouts on every step of the Central American migrant trail.

The Beast is told from the viewpoint of the migrants, whose stories are as vivid as they are shocking; the senseless violence pervading their lives evokes another classic book about Central Americans, but from a different era, Joan Didion’s Salvador (1983). The Beast is also a brilliant work of journalism. Martínez weaves in well-sourced statistics on the size of the migrant problem. He pillories Mexican authorities for turning a blind eye (or worse) to the problem. And he deftly depicts the absurdity of much of the US’ immigration policy, while explaining its history.

Martínez concludes that the more the United States seals off the border, the more migrants are forced into a race with drug “mules” for the remaining gaps. Migrants are powerless to report the cruelties they suffer; no authorities want anything to do with them. The journey through Mexico’s backwaters that these migrants take is more lawless and brutal than anything Graham Greene described in the 1930s. So awful, in fact, that after reading The Beast one cannot help but conclude that most of them make it not out of choice, but out of desperate need.


Óscar Martínez, whose prolific career as a journalist includes directing the Salvadoran investigative journalism project Sala Negra, is also one of the co-founders of what is perhaps the most celebrated online news outlet in Latin America, ElFaro.net. For the past decade, Martínez has been reporting extensively on the northern triangle of Central America—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—and exposing the systemic causes of the violence in the region. The Beast, his first book in English, was named one of the best books of 2013 by the Mother Jones, and the Financial Times.

Edu Ponces is the co-founder of RUIDO Photo, a Barcelona-based photographic agency that currently has projects in more than fifteen countries. The reports and productions created by the agency over the last several years have received prizes in the spheres of cinema and photography, journalistic investigation and the promotion of human rights. Ponces own photographic work in En el camino has earned him accolades such as Best Photography Book of Latin America in 2010, the REVELA International Prize, and the National Journalism and Human Rights Award of El Salvador, among others.