REYNOSA, Mexico — After Gustavo and his family were sent back to Mexico after they crossed the U.S. border, his two sons said they were hungry. Gustavo, a Honduran man, sat them on the steps of the bridge and crossed the street to buy them something to eat. He remembers that a car approached him as he walked those steps. “They put me in the car. The children stayed there, waiting for me, but I didn’t come back.”
He had been kidnapped.
Days later, on the same bridge, Jorge Geovanni Díaz, also from Honduras, found himself holding hands with his son, who is 7, after the U.S. returned them to Mexico. Discouraged, he called their smuggler, or coyote. They were picked up in front of the international bridge and taken to a bodega, where almost 200 people were hoping to cross the river again. All of a sudden, armed men came in and violently took them all away. For this man and his child, 44 harsh days in captivity began.
When migrants arrive in these Mexican cities near the border, they’re the targets of a vicious criminal business that kidnaps them and can torture them for weeks, extorting thousands of dollars of ransom from their relatives over the phone. Those who are kidnapped know that if they don’t pay, the outstanding balances can end in death.
Kimberlin Figueroa, another Honduran migrant, was also returned to Mexico by U.S. authorities. “The cars would come up to me and say, ‘Get in here, get in here, get in the car with us.’ I was afraid and didn't get in the car.” She said she was terrified, because on the way to northern Mexico she had already been kidnapped and she needed thousands of dollars to get her freedom.
Noticias Telemundo Investiga interviewed more than 30 migrants who were kidnapped from 2019 to 2021.
Some spoke on camera and gave their names because they are in safe places and believe they should publicly report the criminal practices. Others avoided giving their full names because they fear reprisals from organized crime. Some spoke on condition of anonymity.
Several of them, including minors, have witnessed the murders of other migrants who tried to flee or whose families were not sending enough ransom.
The criminals tortured some of the abducted migrants with blows all over their bodies to pressure the families who must pay the ransoms. Women were often repeatedly sexually abused by one or more kidnappers, said a woman who was raped, as well as several people who witnessed the crimes.
The cartels and other Mexican criminal groups make $600 to $20,000 per capture, in addition to the thousands of dollars migrants have already paid for the trip north.
U.S. telephone numbers are the data most sought. Families in America, desperate at the thought of losing their loved ones, are besieged by criminals.
According to the pro-immigrant group Human Rights First, at least 6,356 migrants have been victims of kidnappings, abuses or attacks since January.
For migrants, the map of Mexico, starting in the south, is like a checkerboard where they have to show they’ve paid to journey through — and they have to pay it to the correct group.
The dreaded password
There’s something migrants trying the dangerous border crossing need to know at all times: the password.
On Mexican highways, buses sometimes stop suddenly. Armed men ask migrants to get off, and they’re asked for a password that shows that they have paid the smuggler networks as they travel to the U.S. border.
“If you travel from Monterrey to cities on the border, you will see how, in a distance of two hours, at least three times, these people will get off the bus and they will have to give their password, and if they don’t have a password, they are going to have to pay a fee to be allowed to advance to the other point until they reach the border,” said Nilda García, who researches organized crime at Texas A&M International University in Laredo.
The situation can be twisted even more.
Kimberlin, 27, and her 12-year-old son traversed Mexico on their own, without hiring a coyote to reach the U.S. The bus stopped.
“They asked us who we were coming with, if we had a password,” she recalled. “We said: ‘No, no, we came alone. We want to get to the border.’ Then again they asked us for the ‘happy’ password and who we came with.”
She and her son were kidnapped and held captive for more than a week, and her U.S. relatives had to fork out $9,000 in ransom.
In some cases, attackers tell migrants that their coyotes did not make the necessary payments to the criminal group in control of that particular area — or some groups simply steal the detained migrants from one another.
‘They were connected to the taxi driver’
That is what happened to Jorge Geovanni Díaz and his son hours after they were expelled from the U.S. to Tamaulipas — one of the Mexican states where Noticias Telemundo Investiga has discovered more victims.
First, an armed group entered a warehouse where the coyotes kept them. “They attacked 182 people, they took us to the mountains, and there we were kidnapped for a month and 14 days,” Díaz said.
Once his family spent $6,000 and Díaz managed to get out, he fell into the hands of the taxi driver who had to return him to the Reynosa bus station. “They were connected to the taxi driver. They traded me to another cartel in Matamoros,” he said. He suffered a double kidnapping and had to pay $6,000 more.
‘All the people are watching you’
It’s not easy for migrant families to blend in when they're in Mexico.
At bus stations, with their backpacks and their small children crying, they can be seen trying to find their way around and buying tickets to border cities. At inland airports, they show their Central American passports at immigration checks. At convenience stores, like Oxxo or 7-Eleven, they withdraw money that their families send them to survive.
At the border bridges on the Mexico side, the missing laces from their shoes, removed by U.S. border authorities when they’re detained, attract attention. Many migrants hold their possessions in plastic bags with the U.S. government logo.
It’s as if they carry bright labels, making them targets for organized crime, whose tentacles in the border cities seem infinite.
“I arrived at the Nuevo Laredo bus station, a station where all the people are watching you, the most dangerous I have ever visited,” said Yorje Pérez, 23, who migrated from Venezuela. “They are waiting for you to speak, to hear your accent, know where you came from.”
Pérez said his taxi driver heard him, figured out he was Venezuelan and told him he knew he would be seeking asylum in the U.S.
He told Pérez he was going to notify the cartel in the area so it would kidnap him, and he held him in the taxi for hours until Pérez paid him $600. The hotel where the taxi driver dropped Pérez off triggered his fear even more.
“I heard people arrive. They forced a door. … I heard people yelling. I did not sleep. That was the worst night that I could have spent,” he said two months after the incident. He was eventually able to find lodging at a shelter in Mexico and later was able to cross into the U.S. on humanitarian grounds.
‘The cartels have gotten into the shelters’
For Pastor Lorenzo Ortiz, who has been helping migrant families in Nuevo Laredo for years, there is no safe place for them in border cities — not even in shelters like his.
“The cartels always pass by the shelter, take photos, see who’s there. They have abducted people very close to the shelter, one block away,” Ortiz said. “And we’ve had cases where the cartels have gotten into shelters to see what’s going on inside.”
In his offices, Ortiz avoids leaving any sensitive material about migrants in writing, including information like their full names, nationalities or telephone numbers in the U.S. Other border activists who are not being identified by name have also felt that they have been stalked over the information in their computers.
Describing the fear generated by the organized crime threats around the Reynosa migrant camp, Pastor Mari Luz Madrigal said, “We used to have a lot of people coming to help us, but they stopped coming.” As she speaks, she hands out food and inflatable mattresses to a long line of migrant families. Madrigal crosses several days a week from Mission, Texas, to one of the largest migrant camps on the entire border.
‘A man got out of the truck and pulled them in’
Hundreds of tents are concentrated in the city square near the border bridge. Stranded in Reynosa, migrant families live among plastic tents that get so hot that they feel like ovens in the summer. They charge their cellphones in rickety sockets and go to the bathroom amid puddles of mud, holding their noses. They eat hot meals when the gas works or when volunteers deliver food to long lines of families.
Some walk through the plaza with donated backpacks — some with the words “U.S. Army” on them — wearing donated T-shirts from cities they have never been to or don’t know the locations of.
During the day, migrants notify one another when they have to go on errands at a nearby store in Reynosa, sometimes in groups. At night, they organize rounds of men and women who stay up until dawn controlling the entrances to the camp. Any unusual movement, any suspicious truck, is reported in a community chat.
Berta, one of the volunteers, said that’s the only option to stay safe. Months ago, during a sudden downpour, a Honduran man and his son disappeared. “A man said that when he came out of the bathroom, he saw a truck stop, a man get out, pull them in and take them away,” she said as a couple of tears formed in her eyes.
The kidnapping and the cellphone info
Berta herself was kidnapped after she was expelled from the U.S. at a border zone in Arizona. She was put in a truck and told to lower her head and hand over her cellphone.
All of the kidnapping survivors who spoke to Noticias Telemundo Investiga described the criminals’ obsession with mobile devices.
“Leave your cellphones and your money,” the kidnappers told several of the victims. Some have their phones seized and unlocked, and all calls and messages are checked for communication with family members to extort money from them. Others are asked for their passwords so they can be written down in notebooks, or they permanently remove their PINs from their phones.
Some interviewees even remembered a threat: that the kidnappers were going to cut off fingers to unlock the phones whenever they wanted.
The abductors either call the relatives or have the kidnapped migrants talk on speaker mode. Some migrants tensed up remembering what it was like to talk to relatives while the criminals listened in. To the recurring question from relatives on the other end of the phone — “But are you OK?” — they could answer only “All good.” Except it wasn’t.
Survivors agreed that the kidnappings are strategically thought out. Abductors take photos and videos several times a day to make sure no one escapes. In other places, they take pictures of migrants and edit them on WhatsApp with their names, nationalities and dates of birth. Some witnesses saw how one of the cartels wrote every migrant’s name in three notebooks. Most of the phone numbers begin with the U.S. country code, +1.
U.S. relatives equal money to abductors
Berta was immediately asked whether she had a phone when she was abducted and thrown inside the truck.
“I said yes. It was a simple cellphone, just calls and messages, and they took it from me. They checked it. ‘Let’s see who you talk to,’ and the only messages they found were from my mom and my brother who lives with my mom,” she said. They were U.S. numbers, she said, so they saw dollar signs.
Migrants like her know little about where they are held. Moreover, sharing the location of an abduction site is one of the actions that can most anger the captors.
Those who were kidnapped describe the places as warehouses or abandoned homes, often apartments, with a few mattresses on the floor and windows lined with aluminum foil so one cannot see the outside.
“We were very controlled. We had no notion of time there. We didn’t know what day it was. We did not know the time, if it was day, it was night,” said José Antonio, a Nicaraguan migrant kidnapped in the Reynosa area.
He and 16 others were held for 11 days. The kidnappers identified themselves as members of the Gulf Cartel, one of the most powerful and deadly groups in Mexico.
The group heard that a fellow Honduran had fled. According to José Antonio’s account, the armed guards called someone they said was a local police officer, who found the fugitive in about 20 minutes.
When he was returned, “they beat him, they cut off his ear and told him: ‘If you speak, if you scream, something is going to happen to you.’”
The man was writhing in pain and said it hurt. At that point, one of the guards “shoots him in the head, in the forehead,” José Antonio said. They killed the Honduran migrant right there.
‘They abused the women’
Terror and silence marked the long hours in captivity, José Antonio said. The silence is broken only by the victims’ continual prayers. They’re seated apart from one another, without being able to speak, console one another or vent about the situation.
At most, they knew their neighbor’s nationality and face. Most were women; there were also four minors. They were not given chances to bathe or change or really sleep, and they had to ask permission to go to the bathroom. The kidnappers distributed two bottles of water to the whole group and gave them food once a day: tortillas with beans or beans with spaghetti or tortillas with spaghetti.
Two guards, always armed and with a ready insult, watched them 24 hours a day. They took drugs and drank alcohol and prayed to Santa Muerte, whose image was tattooed on their bodies and who was venerated in altars decorated with candles, grapes, bananas, apples and cigar boxes.
José Antonio was beaten shortly after he was kidnapped and told his captors he had no money. “There were four blows to my leg, hip and spine,” he said.
He was fleeing political repression in his country, which included threats, an arrest and a beating. He found it difficult to talk about his experiences in Nicaragua, but what was even harder was remembering the scenes he saw repeated too many times — what they did to the women.
“They abused women. They beat them,” he said. “They were put in a room. Four of them entered and raped them. When they took them out, they said: ‘Shut up. If you keep talking, yelling, you’re going to get another beating,’” José Antonio said.
A victim corroborated a similar experience.
A Honduran woman, identified as Sofia, and her two daughters were kidnapped in Monterrey, in the state of Nuevo León. The criminals, who did not identify themselves as part of any organized group, put them in a house but realized that Sofia had no money or direct family to extort.
“They left my daughters in a room and then took me,” Sofia said. She was told that if she didn’t go along, they would take her girls, instead. Sofia found herself in a room where she was locked up from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m and sexually abused.
“Almost all night, one after another. I mean, they were sick. I think I fell asleep. I couldn’t take it anymore. Later, when I found out, I was already in the car again,” she said.
Forcing migrants to cross the border again
Most of those interviewed by Noticias Telemundo Investiga whose families paid ransoms for their freedom were not actually freed.
Instead, they were taken to safe houses so criminals could take them to cross the U.S. border — even if the migrants didn’t want to cross. They sometimes would be asked for more ransom.
“We were like 40 kidnapped people. All those who paid ransom were sent to the United States,” a survivor of a kidnapping, Excelso Espinosa of Honduras, testified in a criminal court in McAllen, Texas, after he was accused of illegal re-entry into the U.S.
“I already wanted to return to Honduras,” Espinosa said. “They were the ones who, when my family paid the ransom, sent me here. … They did not let us stay in Mexico nor leave for our country, either. They do business like that. It’s their business.”
A lucrative business in the shadow of the U.S.
The migrant’s testimony shows that the lucrative business of human trafficking continues even after kidnapped migrants are released. The income of human smugglers continues to grow with more crossings, more U.S. expulsions and more migrants stranded in Mexico.
Customs and Border Protection returns to Mexico are approaching 900,000 this fiscal year, which has fueled the kidnapping business, according to several pro-immigrant groups.
“By returning to one of the most dangerous areas of the country, such as this border, it exposes them and returns them to imminent danger,” said Ana Ortega, a researcher for Human Rights First.
The returns sometimes take place in Mexican cities hundreds of miles from where migrants entered the U.S., in areas operated by rival criminal groups. The passwords migrants got from their coyotes are no longer useful.
“The same cartels let them know, ‘Well, the password that you brought was so that you could pass that cartel’s territory, but now that you’re in our territory, now you have to pay, too," Pastor Lorenzo Ortiz said.
More migrants have been returned to Mexico under the Trump administration's Title 42, which allows for the rapid expulsion of migrants to prevent the spread of Covid and which has continued during the Biden administration except for unaccompanied minors.
‘We have been very afraid’
Berta Hernández got a severe beating from the kidnappers when her mother was not able to send the ransom money, but she managed to leave the city where it happened. Still bruised on her back, arms and legs, she now lives with other migrants while waiting for humanitarian permission to enter the U.S.
Kimberlin Figueroa was able to enter the U.S. on humanitarian grounds; she and her son are recovering from the kidnapping while living with their relatives. “We have been very scared. My son, if there is a knock on the door, his heart will race a lot. He thinks that they are coming to take us out and that it will happen to us again,” she said, her voice trembling.
Jorge Geovanni Díaz’s son has never been the same. Díaz believes he became ill from seeing torture and murder when he was only 7 years old. After the kidnapping, the boy cried for days, and his nose bled for more. “He told me that he wanted to leave Mexico because they were going to kidnap us again,” Díaz said.
Gustavo, who left his children on the steps of the international bridge to look for food, has not seen them again. The minors, helped financially by their family, crossed the border into the U.S.
Gustavo still finds himself in danger, in a city where it’s hard to hide the fact he’s a migrant at the border.
Noticias Telemundo Investiga reporters Damià Bonmatí, Juan Cooper, Aldo Meza and Belisa Morillo investigated and produced this series of three reports. Albinson Linares and Caleb Olvera contributed to the investigation.
A version of this story was published originally in Noticias Telemundo.
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