Migrant Kidnappings by Criminal Organizations ‘Systematic’ in Mexico

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The kidnapping of migrants who travel through Mexico on their way to the United States has become a “systematic and generalized” practice by organized crime groups such as the Zetas, who demand ransom payments from families or recruit them into their ranks, according to a new report.

In the report titled “Notebook on the Kidnapping of Migrants: Dimensions, Context and Testimonies” Central American migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador who escaped or were released from their kidnapping recount the torture, rape and inhumane treatment they received at the hands of the Zetas.

[See InSight Crime’s Zetas profile]

On May 5 two suspected members of the Zetas drug cartel were arrested, and 18 migrants rescued by Mexican marines in Piedras Negras, a city in the northern state of Coahuila. But most kidnapped migrants aren’t so lucky.

When rights groups began monitoring the situation in 2008, most kidnappings were short lived and not particularly violent. Today migrants can be held for as long as a few months in so-called safe houses. Based on testimonies collected by rights groups the conditions are similarly grim in the majority of the cases. “What at the beginning seemed to be a sporadic and circumstantial phenomenon has become a veritable humanitarian crisis,” the report said.

“Today, the kidnapping of migrants is a systematic and generalized crime, because it is one of the most profitable activities for organized crime in Mexico,” said the report, co-edited by the Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez and the Casa del Migrante de Saltillo.

Extrapolating from findings from the National Commission of Human Rights 2011 report on migrants, which counted more than 10,000 kidnappings in six months, migrant rights advocates have calculated that as many as 20,000 migrants are kidnapped each year. (The commission’s findings have been challenged by government officials from other agencies saying they are exaggerated, but those agencies have not offered revised estimates.)

Criminal organizations demand anywhere between $1,500 and $5,000 to release the migrants leading the Commission on Human Rights to estimate that migrant kidnappers in Mexico are able to collect on average $25 million in six months.

Hostages are often tortured to be forced to give their captors the phone numbers of family members in the United States who can raise the ransom. Testimonies in the report describe how the hostages were beaten, raped, starved, deprived of sleep, and forced to watch the execution of others. Young men are often recruited into the ranks of the Zetas, who offer cars, cash and women, according to the report in the states of Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, y Coahuila, and in the city of Monterrey.·

In 2010, 72 migrants were found murdered execution-style in Tamaulipas and other mass killings of migrants have followed.

In almost all the testimonies in the report, victims described how their captors worked in collusion with government officials.

Gustavo Sanchez, a 16-year-old Honduran recalled:

We left San Luis [Potosi] on a bus at around 10:30 pm and about an hour later we reached a…migration checkpoint. The federal police were there stopping cars and buses. They stopped the bus we were on and got on and started asking us questions. When they realized we were not Mexican, they pulled us off the bus and led us to an [official] Migration pickup truck…A little while later two Suburban SUVs arrived and two people got out and spoke to the guys from Migration [offices]. I heard how Migration [officials] sold each of us for $100…[The men we were sold to] told us they were from the Zetas.

Nancy, 24, from El Salvador was held captive for two and a half months:

They got me in Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, when I was in a supposed shelter. Big trucks arrived like the ones used by moving companies and they grabbed me and my 83 companions. They told us they would charge us $2,500 to be paid in Houston, Texas. They took us to Reynosa and on the road we would pass checkpoints of the National Migration Institute and the Federal Police who saw us and they didn’t do anything, they just took the money they were given to keep quiet. The kidnappers told us to look and see how they had everyone paid off. One of the men started bothering us women and abusing us. One of our companions got angry and tried to defend us, but he couldn’t because they raped him too and then they beat him to death. He fell on the floor at my feet…

They took us to a house… At one point two of my companions were released because the ransom was paid so they went to turn themselves into Migration [officials] in Reynosa. They told the agents what had happened, and they sold them back to the Zetas. They arrived at the house, and they killed them right there and placed the two bodies in an offering to the Santa Muerte. They made all of us pass in front of the altar with the two dead women and kneel and ask for forgiveness from the Santa Muerte.

Reaction from federal authorities to the problem of kidnappings has been slow and weak. In May 2011, the government passed a new Migration Law that while reforming Mexico’s immigration rules also aimed to protect transient migrants. However, to date, it has yet to be implemented. Rights activists have called Mexico’s migration policies to go further and offer Central American migrants transit papers, which, by eliminating their illegal status in the country, would make them less vulnerable to abuse and kidnapping.

Despite the dramatic proportions of the migrant kidnapping problem, the issue has been largely absent from the current presidential campaign ahead of the July 1 elections. This may be related to the fact that migrants do not vote.

See the full report here (pdf)

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