On Mexico's other border
Bear in mind, these people are fleeing extrerme poverty and violence in Central American countries. This article describes the beginning of the very tough trip that must take through Mexico to reach the safety and opportunity of the First World, of the United States. -- blj
Mexican kidnappers pile misery on to Central Americans fleeing violence
Nina Lakhani in Cárdenas, Tabasco
Marco Martínez had just stepped off the bus with five other Honduran migrants when four police cars sped into the terminal in downtown Cárdenas. They ran, but were quickly captured.
The migrants – five men and one woman en route to the US – were taken to the outskirts of the city where they were stripped naked at gunpoint, then searched and robbed by the officers.
But that was not the end of their ordeal.
The police handed them over to a couple in a red Volkswagen Beetle, who drove them at gunpoint to a house on a residential street, where they were held captive by a family armed with machetes.
Marco Martínez was detained by local police in Cárdenas and handed over to a local gang. They beat him up, threatened to kill him, and forced his family to pay ransom money. Photograph: Encarni Pindado for the Guardian
The kidnappers claimed to be working for Mexico’s most brutal crime cartel, the Zetas, and the hostages were forced to call relatives and beg for thousands of dollars in ransom.
“They said they’d cut our heads off if we didn’t hand over telephone numbers so they could call our families,” said Martínez, 38, a father of three, who asked to be identified with a pseudonym. As they spoke on the telephone, the hostages were punched, kicked and given electric shocks to make them scream.
Donald Trump has attacked Mexico for what he says is a failure to crack down on immigration, and argues that the US needs a border wall to keep out “bad hombres”.
But most migrants passing through Mexico are Central American refugees fleeing violence and poverty. And during their passage to the US, they are more likely to become victims of crime: migrants are routinely targeted by bandits and kidnappers – often working hand in glove with members of the security forces.
A one-off study by Mexico’s National Commission of Human Rights suggested that in 2008-09, an average of 1,600 migrants were kidnapped each month. Anecdotal evidence from migrants and activists suggests that since then, the problem has only grown worse.
Migrant-kidnapping on an industrial scale was pioneered as a lucrative sideline by the Zetas, when the group, which was founded by army special forces defectors, split with their former employers, the Gulf cartel.
The Zetas were responsible for some of Mexico’s most notorious abductions, including two massacres in 2010 and 2011 in which at least 265 migrants were kidnapped from buses, killed and buried in mass graves in the northern state of Tamaulipas.
Local police were involved in both cases, and according to Professor Rodolfo Casillas, a migration scholar at the Latin American Social Science Institute (Flacso), corrupt officials continue to play a central role in migrant kidnappings.
Despite this, the US has funneled tens of millions of dollars to Mexican security forces to beef up immigration checkpoints and stop Central Americans reaching the US.
“Immigration and security agents work so efficiently to detain hundreds of thousands of migrants, yet rarely find the kidnappers operating in the same areas,” said Casillas. “The evidence of direct and indirect collaboration is indisputable.”
One of the most dangerous sections of the journey through Mexico is Tabasco, a sparsely populated oil-rich state on the Gulf coast. Straddling the shortest route from Guatemala to US, the region has the second highest kidnap rate in the country.
In the dusty city of Cárdenas, gangs openly warehouse kidnapped migrants in family homes.
Soon after Martínez was seized in the city in June 2016, five more migrants – three Guatemalans and two Honduran brothers – were dragged into the tiny room where he was held. They had also been detained, robbed and delivered by the police.
Although the kidnappers claimed to be Zetas, the abduction was a family affair: the father and teenage sons guarded the cramped bedroom where the hostages were imprisoned while two younger children watched television in the next room.
And despite the constant threat of violence, ransom negotiations played out against the mundane background of family life. The mother of the house cooked meals for the whole group, and even gave them cans of beer to celebrate one of the men’s birthday.
Central America is one of the poorest regions in the hemisphere, but between them them, Martinez’s group eventually convinced their families to raise about $35,000 in ransoms.
Migrants are taken up the San Pedro river between Guatemala and Mexico and transported in cattle trucks to a near by village in Tabasco, Mexico. Photograph: Encarni Pindado for the Guardian
Most of them were released, but the two Honduran brothers were held another day while their relatives made their payment. Before they were set free, another 15 migrants were brought to the house, and the process of violence, threats and extortion resumed.
Last year, state authorities rescued 53 migrants and arrested 39 people, including a handful of low-ranking police officers, operating around Cárdenas.
But Jesús Robles Maloof, a human rights lawyer representing Martínez, said: “The openness of the collusion between authorities, the private sector and criminals should be considered crimes against humanity. These are serious and systematic violations against a vulnerable population.”
After the ransoms were collected from a money transfer counter near the bus terminal, the hostages were released. Some continued towards the US, others went home, but Martínez went back to the city of Tenosique, where he sought refuge at La72, a migrant shelter.
“Many people at the shelter have been kidnapped too, but most are too scared to speak out,” said Martínez, who did report the abduction, and was granted a temporary humanitarian visa to work in Mexico.
Last year, some 14,000 people passed through the shelter, and staff are used to hearing horrific stories. One recent case is among the worst.
Lulu Sánchez, 31, left La Ceiba, Honduras, in January, with her pregnant 15-year-old daughter, eight-year-old son and two adult male neighbours, after an escalation of gang violence in their neighbourhood.
At the Mexico-Guatemala border, they boarded a bus for Tenosique. But as night fell, the driver turfed them out, claiming that they had not paid enough fare to go any further.
After three hours or so walking along the unlit road, they were ambushed near a rubbish dump by four men armed with pistols. They were dragged into a nearby farm building, stripped, searched and beaten. Sánchez’s son was punched in the face. That night, Sánchez was raped by three of the men; her pregnant daughter by the fourth.
At daybreak they were moved again, and forced to hand over telephone numbers of relatives in Honduras and the US so the kidnappers – who also claimed to be Zetas – could call for ransoms.
“They threatened to kill my son and sell his organs; they said they could get a lot of money for my daughter,” said Sánchez, who left Honduras with all the money she had: $30.
At nightfall, without explanation, the two men were freed. They ran shoeless towards the city until they found a police base. The police took them to hospital after Grupo Beta, a government agency supposedly dedicated to migrant welfare, refused to help. But nobody went to search for the missing family, who spent another night held at gunpoint outside in heavy rain.
Sánchez and her children were released the following afternoon after her brother wired $300 to bank account in Mexico.
They eventually found their way to La72, but the following day, one of the kidnappers came to the shelter looking for them.
Lulu Sánchez: ‘We’re terrified – my son cannot get what happened out of his head.’ Photograph: Encarni Pindado for the Guardian
“They said they would kill us and our families if we told anyone. We’re terrified – my son cannot get what happened out of his head,” said Sánchez.
Staff at La72 say that Sánchez’s ordeal followed a pattern: more than 20 sexual assaults and kidnappings have been reported on the same stretch of road. There have been no arrests over any of them.
Sergio García, the local prosecutor for crimes against migrants, sat behind a tower of case files at his office in downtown Tenosique. In an interview, he admitted that those who prey on refugees and migrants are able to do so with impunity.
“It’s hard to resolve cases because criminals hide when we look for them … and migrants leave before investigations are complete,” he said. “But I’m confident we will catch them this time.”
The investigation has since been taken off García by the state attorney general, and the Sánchez family moved to a safe house; they plan to seek asylum in the US.