Criminal groups in Mexico have kidnapped and extorted migrants for years, but their ability to prey upon people embarking on the perilous journey to the United States may well be inadvertently facilitated by the very policies intended to keep migrants out: border security.
A recent feature story in the New Yorker magazine details how heavy policing of traditional border crossing routes has pushed migrants to use more dangerous pathways through the Arizona and Texas deserts.
Not only has this US strategy of “deterrence through prevention” increased the risks that migrants face, but so has the evolution of the human smuggling trade at the border. While smugglers, or “coyotes,” used to work alone or in small, family-run networks, as the price of crossing the border has gone up — from $6,000 to over $8,000, according to the Dallas Morning News — transnational criminal groups have moved in. These groups are increasingly kidnapping migrants and holding them for ransom, until family members in the United States or Central America cough up thousands for their freedom.
The New Yorker also found that migrant kidnappings happen on the US side of the border as well, not just in Mexico. In both countries, migrants are reluctant to report kidnappings and extortion for fear of being deported, although the United States has laws that protect witnesses in criminal cases from deportation.
As one aid worker told the New Yorker, “When organized crime kidnaps somebody rich, the media and police mobilize. Then the criminals feel the heat. So they realized that, rather than doing one big, flashy kidnapping of someone rich and powerful, it would be better to do a hundred small kidnappings of migrants whom nobody pays attention to.”
InSight Crime Analysis
As the New Yorker details, there are two primary reasons why migrants crossing into the US are increasingly at risk. The first is that border security apparatus in the United States has made illegally crossing more dangerous and more expensive. Secondly, the fragmentation of Mexico’s traditional criminal groups means that migrants are now seen as another revenue source.
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A 2013 report from the Washington Office on Latin America found that the Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas orchestrated a full takeover of the “mom and pop” coyote businesses along US-Mexico border. While the Sinaloa Cartel tends to be less violent, the Zetas are especially renowened for extorting and kidnapping migrants, and killing those who do not pay up.
According to Mexico’s statistics agency, there were 682 reported migrant kidnappings in 2014, a 1000 percent increase from the year before. While the rise could be due to better compilation of data, another potential explanation is that some Mexican border states, like Tamaulipas, are Zeta strongholds and remain racked by insecurity.