Beyond the Border

The Migrant Kidnapping Epidemic Next Door

By Stephanie Leutert
Wednesday, November 30, 2016, 9:00 AM

It was six in the morning when Daniela got off the overnight bus in Nuevo Laredo in early August. She was traveling with her husband and four children, and they’d spent the last nine months slowly making their way through Mexico. Back in their home country of Honduras, armed men had been hunting them down as retaliation for a court case they’d filed against 18th Street gangsters. When they shot Daniela’s husband six times as he was driving home with the family’s groceries, the family headed north.

The only step now was to walk four miles to a Laredo port of entry and ask for asylum. Daniela and her two youngest children (five and two years old) made one last stop to use the bathroom. But when they returned a few minutes later, the rest of the family was gone. Also missing were the two bald, tattooed men that had been sitting two rows behind them in the bus station.

I met Daniela a few days later in a U.S. family detention center, and she still had no idea what had happened to her husband and two sons. But she didn’t believe the U.S. border official who told her that they’d surely been picked up by Mexico’s immigration enforcement. She had a bad feeling that they’d been kidnapped.

She was right.

Crimes against Central American migrants in Mexico—including kidnapping, rape, and murder—are one of the most systematically underreported large scale human rights violations in the Western Hemisphere. Most casual observers know that the journey is dangerous, but the extent of the dangers, the sheer number of victims, and the close ties to organized criminal groups are harder to see.

One reason that crimes against Central American migrants go unnoticed is that assigning real numbers to the scope of the problem is nearly impossible. Central American migrants are a shadow population moving through Mexico. We don’t even know with certainty how many Central Americans are on the move every year, although back of the envelope calculations suggest the figure is well over 400,000. This past year, around two-thirds of these migrants were families or unaccompanied children.

The most vulnerable migrants are those traveling by themselves or with lower-cost smugglers that take them on top of freight trains, along migrant trails, or in buses across the country. Those with a little more money get packed in the back of trailers, dump trucks, or private cars that do grueling trips straight across the country. These travel methods come with their own (sometimes deadly) challenges but seem to be better on average for avoiding the most violent crimes.

For those unfortunate migrants who are plucked off the migrant path by criminal organizations in a standard kidnapping, the standard brutal scam goes something like this. The migrants are forced into a van or truck and brought to safe houses. There they are asked to provide the telephone number of a family member, usually in the United States. If they don’t have a number to hand over or if they “forget” the number, anecdotes suggests some form of torture or a grisly end are common.

For migrants that do hand over the telephone number, the person on the other end of the line will receive a call demanding that several thousand dollars be wired to a specific account in exchange for the freedom of their loved one. Most of the time, migrants appear to be released soon after their relatives pay up. But that’s not always the case. And there are plenty of anecdotes that point to migrants being killed or forced into prostitution even after family members pay their ransoms. For those families that can't pull together the money, the situation rarely ends well.  

Back at the migrant detention center in Texas, we began calling Daniela’s family members to piece together what had happened. The story we heard was that her husband and two sons had indeed been kidnapped in the Nuevo Laredo bus station and brought to a nearby safe house, where they had been brutally beaten. Yet, in a made-for-Hollywood twist, they’d flung themselves out an open window—and with the help of a good Samaritan—made it to a U.S. port of entry. The family is now reunited in Texas, awaiting the start of their asylum case. They have yet to report the incident to either Mexican or U.S. law enforcement.

Similar to Daniela and her family, most migrants don’t report crimes—since they don't trust the local police or fear being deported—making it hard to get a sense of the problem’s true scope. But the few numbers that we have on kidnapping boggle the mind. A 2011 report from Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission reported knowledge of 198 mass kidnappings that included 9,758 victims over just a six-month period from September 2008 to February 2009. A second report noted 214 kidnappings from April to September 2010 that included 11,333 migrants. And these are just those kidnappings that the Commission was able to document.

Add this up, and it starts to become a pretty lucrative side-business for groups like the Zetas that also control human trafficking routes. Migration officials and business leaders estimate that these cartels or cartelitos (little cartels) are raking in somewhere between $100 and $250 million a year from kidnapping migrants.

These kidnappings—along with rape and murder of migrants—haven’t gone completely unnoticed. Alongside civil society, immigration lawyers, and academics, U.S. and Mexican policymakers have routinely championed the need to better protect Central American migrants from kidnapping and other violent crimes. However, this rhetorical support has rarely translated into serious programmatic efforts or widespread awareness of the issue.

Mexico’s federal government, along with a few Mexican states, have taken steps to protect Central Americans, including passing migration laws and setting up special prosecutors for crimes against migrants. Yet these policy efforts are pretty fangless when stacked up against Mexico’s serious challenges: the formidable organized criminal groups, the corrupt or complicit local officials, and the weak rule of law across many states. What’s more, even as officials push these policies, they are also arguably worsening the situation for migrants, as Mexican immigration crackdowns push migration further underground and into organized crime’s open arms.  

In the United States, most conversations around protecting migrants in Mexico quickly devolve into Americans’ hardened stances on unauthorized immigration writ large. The idea that we should provide any support to migrants in Mexico that could soon try to break U.S. laws by sneaking across the border is a hard sell politically. The Obama administration has balanced this concern with a push for human rights, though mostly raising the issue of migrants’ protection in Mexico at high-level bilateral and multilateral forums. These limited displays of support will surely soon disappear during a Donald Trump presidency.

The problem is that these crimes won't go away just because we aren't paying attention. And inaction only strengthens the hands and bank accounts of Mexico's criminal groups by facilitating crimes against tens, or hundreds, of thousands of individuals who will likely live (many with asylum or some form of legal protection) in the United States. They will carry these memories of brutality and victimization across the border and into our schools, workplaces, and communities.

Daniela and her family were exceedingly lucky in how their kidnapping story came to a close. However, when we define as "lucky" a family that was forced to abandon its home in Honduras because of murder attempts, then spent nine months on the road, and saw half the family members kidnapped and brutally beaten, something is clearly wrong. And compared to many others, Daniela and her family were, indeed, lucky. Unfortunately, widespread inaction in Mexico and the United States means that the luck of many migrants isn’t likely to improve anytime soon.