In Tamaulipas, Mexican cartels compete to extort migrants
They are proof that they entered the United States to seek asylum, but all they managed to do was be detained for a few days - when their shoelaces were removed for security reasons - before being sent back to the wolf's mouth in the violent state of Tamaulipas.
In previous years, migrants passed quickly through this land of cartels. Now, with Donald Trump's new immigration policies, they stay there for months while waiting for their appointments in U.S. courts, stranded in the jaws of organized crime. Their stories speak of robberies, extortion by criminals or corrupt officials, kidnappings.
They tell how the only options they face are to pay to illegally cross into the United States, even if their plans are not to do so, or simply to be set free. Sometimes they escape from one group to fall into the hands of another.
A 32-year-old Honduran accountant who travels with her daughter knows it well. She has been trapped for four months in a vicious circle of legal and illegal crossings and returns between the two countries that have only increased their debts and hopelessness.
We are a little gold mine for crime," she laments, resigned from the city of Monterrey, 200 kilometers from the U.S. border.
Tamaulipas is the northeastern corner of Mexico. It is the only border state to which the State Department forbids Americans to set foot because it is a territory controlled by cartels. Washington places it at a similar alert level to countries at war like Afghanistan and Syria.
Until recently, migrants passed through these territories. They either crossed the Rio Bravo quickly to Texas or crossed bridges to seek asylum, a procedure that allowed them to stay in the United States, even in detention, while being given an answer.
Everything changed with the hardening of the immigration policies of the Donald Trump administration. The border has become a funnel where fewer and fewer can legally enter and more leave through the program known as "Staying in Mexico," a strategy by which Washington has returned more than 55,000 people as their asylum applications wander, with little chance of prospering, through the intricate bureaucracy of overwhelmed U.S. courts.
Organized Crime Harasses Migrants
Organized crime has been able to adapt and make good use of this lucrative loot landed directly in some of its fiefdoms. Entire families, often with children, are treated as mere merchandise or as walking ATMs, ready to feed their criminal businesses.
Yohan, a 31-year-old Nicaraguan ex-security guard, was returned to Mexico in July with only his cell phone and a plastic case with an asylum appointment.
Without shoelaces or money, and with his wife and two children of 10 and 2 years old in his charge, he went into Nuevo Laredo, a city dominated by the Northeast Cartel, a division of the bloodthirsty Zetas.
He tells his story from a place in Monterrey, where an organization offers him shelter, food and work while his situation is resolved.
His plan was to ask for help from the only people he knew in the region: their coyotes. They had treated him well, gave him some confidence and were in Ciudad Miguel Aleman, 160 kilometers from Nuevo Laredo and also on the border.
Before arriving at the bus terminal, two strangers intercepted him while another group blocked his family. He saw only one armed man, but no more was needed. They got them into a van, took away the little they had, including their shoes. They were given an opportunity to choose their destination: to pay for their release or for a new crossing.
Throughout the northern border there have been cases of abuse and crimes against migrants, but this year Tamaulipas is experiencing the most worrying situation. It is the state through which more migrants cross illegally. It is also where the U.S. government has returned more people despite the danger: 20,700 as of October 1.
The family left Estelí, in northern Nicaragua, more than three months ago when paramilitaries learned that they witnessed the murder of an opponent by government officials. They began to follow him, painted death threats on the walls of his house, and he had to flee.
When he stepped into U.S. territory, he thought that pawning his mother's house to pay for the $18,000 the traffickers had asked for was worth it. Now, ruined and fearful everywhere, he's not sure of anything.
Their captors told them "that they were from the cartel, that they were not kidnappers, that their job was to cross people and that they would take us with the pollero (another way to call the coyote or trafficker) to explain the conditions. Then they connected a cable to the cell phone to get all the information out.
Yohan's first impulse was to give them the password of their former traffickers, the password with which each group distinguishes "their" migrants. "That's not good enough for us," said one. The key was from the opposite group.
Narcos Compete for Extortion
Organized crime in Tamaulipas fragmented in the last decade and now the cells operate as if they were franchises with contacts throughout Mexico and Central America, explains Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, of George Mason University and an expert in organized crime and human trafficking.
They are contractors, they give a service, they control the territory, they operate the safe houses and they charge for all of it," she adds.
The days of captivity of Yohan's family, along with another Salvadoran, two Cubans and two Mexicans, passed from safe house to safe house, apparent private homes or offices where they slept on the floor and killed time trying to play with the children or attending the visit made by members of the group in charge of making extortion calls.
Without visible weapons, they were watched at all times. Conversations with his captors gave him an idea of how organized the world he was in was.
I had confidence in a 16-year-old," he explains. "He told me, there are 15 polleros, the cartel brings people here and we cross them paying the cartel for the crossing of the river and all the movement.
They also told him that they had to hire more people. "As the United States is deporting so many here, we are capturing them and our work has increased, we are saturated.
They asked him for 16,000 dollars for the four of them.
They gave us a list with many names and we had to deposit 450 to each person" and without using certain companies, more traceable by the authorities.
But Yohan knew that his family would never get that much money because they were foreclosed with the first loan. They only managed to raise $3,000 and the tension grew.
I'm going to turn them over to the cartel," one of the captors shouted at them.
The panic grew when their youngest son, the only one who laughed outside everything, got sick with mumps. They got some extra milk in exchange for the girl's little gold ring, but as the boy was not getting any better they opted to release them not without taking their names well and taking pictures of everyone. They would have them under control.
They told us that the cartel does not allow them to have sick children. I think that's why.
It's not a question of humanity, but of business," explains Correa-Cabrera. A dead child can attract the attention of the media and the authorities.
After 14 days in custody and before leaving the safe house, their captors warned Yohan that if someone intercepted them, they had to give the following code: "We already passed through the office checking.
Then they didn't know that it would only take a few hours for them to pronounce the six magic words that would save the whole family from a new kidnapping just as they were about to take a bus to Monterrey. The criminal gear had worked.
Almost two months later, on September 22, Yohan and his family had to return to Nuevo Laredo for their appointment. Terrified, he carried in his hand something that could be the same as a key to enter the United States like a time bomb in Mexico: the denunciation of his kidnapping, which he presented in Monterrey.
U.S. law allows vulnerable migrants not to be returned, but it didn't matter. In a matter of hours they were back in Mexico again, in the same parking lot of the Mexican immigration building of the first time and from whose entrance you can see the exchange houses, the canteens and the watchful eyes stalking prey. Her stomach knotted when her little girl said, "Daddy, look, a truck like the one that grabbed us".
The Mexican authorities organize free transfers for those who would like to leave the border cities and return to their countries of origin. Yohan and his family were not thinking of returning home, but they asked the driver to drop them off in Monterrey, where the NGO that helped them was willing to receive them again.
On the way, the driver demanded 200 dollars of extortion to do so. Since they didn't have the money, the driver left them stranded in the middle of the night almost a hundred kilometers from their destination with four other people. They all slept huddled together in a parking lot to ward off fear.