Oct 5, 2021 - World

Mexico's drug cartels target migrants as they expand into extortion

A man views both sides of the southern border from Mexico.

Daniel survived a cartel kidnapping and now awaits a U.S. asylum process in Tamaulipas, Mexico. Photo: Noticias Telemundo Investiga

Kidnapping families, torturing kids for information on whom to ask for ransom, and dismembering those that don’t pay: This is how cartels and local gangs operate as they have diversified their business from drug trafficking to extortion.

Why it matters: The stories of survivors show the dire straits migrants face in their journey to the U.S., the one place they think can be a safe haven from the violence, climate disasters, political persecution and poverty that made them leave their place of birth.

  • As more people attempt crossings or get stranded from express deportations and quickly rejected asylum claims, the cartels and coyotes are profiting.

How it works: The kidnappings happen both before attempted crossings to the U.S. and after expulsions from the border, according to Noticias Telemundo Investiga interviews with dozens of people who were released.

  • There are “hawks," or cartel spies, in bus and taxi stations and sometimes even in migrant shelters run by NGOs. They ID possible targets.
  • Once people are kidnapped, often forced onto cars at gunpoint, they are told to hand over their cellphones. If they’re not unlocked, their owners are threatened with having a finger chopped off.
  • The abductors use the phones to extort funds from victims’ family members, first threatening beatings or rape, and then sending photographs of the victims after those threats are carried out.

The bottom line: Owing smugglers money can mean death and burial in unmarked mass graves in Mexican border states like Tamaulipas, Chihuahua and Nuevo León.

By the numbers: At least 6,356 migrants headed to the U.S. were victims of kidnappings and related abuses from January until August, according to the group Human Rights First.

  • Cartels and other organized crime groups in Mexico can make between $600 and $20,000 from each ransom, per interviews.
  • Those funds are on top of what the migrants have to pay beforehand to smuggler networks in exchange for a “password” that helps them avoid additional extortions along the way.

What they’re saying: Migrants "don’t report [cartel kidnappers] because they threaten them if they do so [and] most kidnappers have ties to the authorities. It is the perfect business,” researcher Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera told Noticias Telemundo Investiga.

Context: Before any kidnappings, most of the migrants are already in severe debt, taken on to start the journey north for themselves or their kids in a risk that they see as their only option.

  • Those with families already in the U.S. are most commonly targeted for ransoms.

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