Extortion and kidnap: A deadly journey across Mexico

By Agency BBC , Agency
Published at 07:00 AM Apr 20 2024
Queue of migrants outside processing centre in Arizona after crossing the border.
Photo: File
Queue of migrants outside processing centre in Arizona after crossing the border.

THE influx of migrants across the southern US border has become a critical factor in the US presidential election. But what is little known is the role of drug cartels in making a dangerous journey across Mexico even more perilous.

With its strip clubs, taco stands and buzzing motorbikes, San Luis Rio Colorado is typical of Mexican border communities.

In a migrant shelter, a stone's throw from the towering, rust-red fence that separates the town from the US state of Arizona, Eduardo rests on a shady patio.

On one wall, there's a large wooden cross. And it's here that Eduardo began to process - and recover from - his terrifying ordeal in Mexico.

Eduardo, who is in his 50s, used to run a fast-food restaurant in Ecuador. But organised crime has tightened its grip in his former, mostly peaceful, South American home.

"As business people we were extorted," he says. Eduardo was threatened with death if he didn't pay a 'tax' to the gang. "What could we do? To save our lives we had to leave."

Eduardo never wanted to migrate, but he was frightened and decided to head to the US to ask for asylum.

His story is typical of thousands of people from many parts of the world fleeing violence and seeking a new life in the US.

After a record number of arrivals at the end of 2023, Democratic President Joe Biden proposed stricter immigration measures which include shutting the border when it's overwhelmed. His opponent Republican Donald Trump says he will introduce mass deportations if elected in November.

What has stayed mostly under the radar in the debate about mass migration to the US is the role of Mexico's deadly drug trafficking organisations.

Eduardo began his journey by flying from the Ecuadorean capital Quito to Mexico City. Then he boarded a bus north to Sonoyta on the US border, a journey of more than 30 hours.

The passengers were a mix of migrants and Mexicans. But what Eduardo didn't appreciate was that his trip would take him across terrain controlled by some of Mexico's most violent drug cartels and their associates - malevolent forces that dominate the business of migration.

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The first time the bus was stopped, it was early morning, around 6am. Ten armed men wearing balaclavas got on board.

The bus was driven off-road towards the mountains. The men asked to see everyone's papers. Once they established who the migrants were, they asked each of them for 1500 pesos (US$90) or they would be detained.

The migrants pooled their cash but were short by 200 pesos (US$12). The men let them off and 11 hours after being stopped, the bus was allowed to go on its way.

San Luis Rio Colorado, the border town where Eduardo recuperated at the migrant shelter, has also gained a reputation for the kidnap of migrants.

In May last year, neighbours of a modern, two-storey house on the edge of town reported unusual comings and goings. When the Mexican authorities swooped, five people were arrested and more than 100 migrants freed. Some of them had been held in the house for three weeks.

"They didn't have food and water, and they were maltreated physically and psychologically," says Teresa Flores Munoz, a local police officer involved in the operation.

She remembers a woman from India. "She was crying and holding her baby. She pushed the baby at me - she said I should take him, because they were going to kill him. It was really desperate."

Twenty-three nationalities were represented among the captives, including people from Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, China, Mauritania and Senegal.

According to local reports, the kidnappers demanded US$2,500 from each migrant, double from pregnant women.

If the migrants do not have the money, the gangs demand it from relatives either back home or north of the border in the US.

These extortionists and hostage-takers are not only professional criminals - some are also law enforcement. As Eduardo's bus continued north through the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Sonora, he says they were stopped at six police checkpoints where officers demanded money from the migrants.

"If you didn't have cash they called you over. They said, 'take off your trousers, take off your clothes', and you have to give them everything, like your suitcase. If you didn't have money they took your papers - that's how I lost some documents." 

Bus holdups targeting migrants aren't unusual. In San Luis Rio Colorado, we worked with a local Mexican journalist. After he left us, he sent us photos, taken secretly, of his bus home being stopped by a gang, their faces covered.

"Everyone on the bus knew they were sicarios [hitmen] for the drug and migrant trafficking mafia," he said.

The masked men only questioned people they suspected weren't Mexican - those in poor clothing, their faces fearful. The five or six migrants taken off the bus were each extorted of up to US$50.

The door of the men's truck bore the logo of an agency of Sonora's State Prosecutor - AMIC (Agencia Ministerial de Investigaciones Criminales) - can be seen. Our journalist colleague thinks it was faked.

Eduardo's most distressing experience on his journey from Mexico City north to the border happened in the state of Sonora too, around three hours from Sonoyta.

Again, the bus was stopped by armed men. And because there was not enough cash to hand over, two Colombian families, including five children, were forced off the bus, loaded into a truck and driven away.

"We didn't have enough money to save everyone," says Eduardo, his voice breaking.

He was now penniless, his $3,000 savings gone. This meant he couldn't pay a "coyote" or people smuggler in Sonoyta to get him across the border illegally into the US.

The bus driver told Eduardo he risked being kidnapped if he stayed there, and dropped him in San Luis Rio Colorado instead, where Eduardo made his way to the migrant shelter.