NEW YORK TIMES - The La Raza Moutpiece
October 18, 2009
Migrants Going North Now Risk Kidnappings
By MARC LACEY
TECATE, Mexico — For 37 days, the Salvadoran immigrant was held captive in a crowded room near the border with scores of people, all of them Central Americans who had been kidnapped while heading north, hoping to cross into the United States. He finally got out in August, he said, after the Mexican Army raided the house in the middle of the night to free them.
“The army said: ‘Don’t run. We’re here to help you,’ ” recalled the migrant, a 30-year-old father of three who insisted that his name not be printed for fear of either being kidnapped again or deported. “I kept running.”
Getting to “el norte” has never been a cakewalk. Along with long treks through desert terrain, death-defying river crossings and perilous rides clinging onto trains, there have always been con men and crooked police officers preying on migrants along the way.
But Mexican human rights groups that monitor migration say the threats foreigners face as they cross Mexico for the United States have grown significantly in recent months. Organized crime groups have begun taking aim at migrants as major sources of illicit revenue, even as the financial crisis in the United States has reduced the number of people willing to risk the journey.
Kidnapping people for ransom is a pervasive problem in this country, although victims have typically been prosperous people with bank accounts that can be emptied at the nearest A.T.M., or those with relatives willing to hand over significant sums to save them.
Migrants may typically be poor, often with little in their pockets except the scrawled telephone numbers of relatives who have migrated before them, but they have usually notified friends or relatives in the United States that they are on their way. To kidnappers, those contacts are golden. “They beat me and kept beating me until I handed over my telephone numbers,” said the Salvadoran immigrant, interviewed at a center for migrants in Reynosa, just across the border with Texas.
In many ways, the man’s account was typical. A study by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission released this year found 9,758 migrants who had been kidnapped as they tried to cross the border into the United States between September 2008 and February 2009. The commission noted that migrants were typically terrified to report such crimes out of fear of being deported by Mexican immigration authorities and that the actual number of victims was probably much higher.
The stories the commission heard in interviews with victims were alarming. There were frequent rapes of female migrants. Fierce beatings were carried out. As a lesson to other captives, the kidnappers killed some migrants who did not hand over the telephone numbers of their relatives.
“They said that if they did not receive payment, they would take away my kidney afterward and throw me into the river so the big lizards would eat me,” a Honduran man who was kidnapped in Tabasco State told commission investigators.
He said he had been kidnapped along with 60 or so others, all Central Americans. The men who took them said they were coyotes, or human smugglers, and promised to feed them and help them cross into the United States. Instead, the men forced the captives over 30 days to call relatives in the United States and extract thousands of dollars from them in order to be released.
The amounts demanded ranged from $1,500 to $10,000, sizable sums on top of the several thousand dollars that the migrants had already paid smugglers to make the crossing.
One victim, a Honduran man kidnapped in Nuevo Laredo at the Texas border, told investigators that he was close to reaching the United States when he fell for a swindle. Two women approached and offered him a day job for about $10, money that he desperately needed.
But there was no job awaiting him at the house where he was taken. Instead, he and a half dozen other migrants were beaten over the course of two weeks and frequently photographed. The captors demanded the e-mail addresses of relatives and sent the desperate-looking photos in order to extract ransoms, he said.
The man said his relatives paid what the kidnappers had demanded, so he and others who had come up with the ransom money were blindfolded one evening and taken to the bank of a river. Dumped alongside them was the body of a Salvadoran migrant whom the captors had killed. The kidnappers fired several rounds at the ground and demanded that everyone jump into the river, the man said. The group never made it across, though, and was later picked up by the Mexican authorities.
Human rights workers say Mexican migrants are not singled out by kidnappers as often as foreigners, mostly Central Americans, but also Ecuadoreans, Brazilians, Chileans and Peruvians. The foreigners are more vulnerable, less familiar with their surroundings and less likely to report what happened to them to the authorities, advocates say.
“If people don’t come forward, we don’t know the extent of the problem,” said Angélica Martínez, a state prosecutor in Tecate, a border town east of Tijuana, where the authorities were pursuing a kidnapper who goes by the nickname “El Gato,” who was believed to prey on migrants.
Complicating the problem, migrants complain that the police are sometimes in league with the kidnappers, rounding up victims and handing them over to kidnappers for a fee. Mexican law enforcement officials acknowledge that some individual officers may be involved in organized crime, but they say the problem is not as widespread as often portrayed and is being combated on a national level.
The Salvadoran victim who was kidnapped in Reynosa said he had first been to the United States in 1999. He had stayed three years, working in the fields and in a furniture store in North Carolina, before returning to El Salvador. After what he had endured, he said he was mulling whether to give up the opportunity of higher wages in the United States and return home.
“There was danger of robbery back then,” he said of his first crossing 10 years ago. “It’s always been dangerous. But now it’s gotten even worse. We’re poor and we’re trying to get ahead. We’re doing this for our kids. I’d advise people to be careful and to pray to God.”