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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.

Get more news that matters about Latinos in the hemisphere, delivered right to your inbox on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Sign up for the Axios Latino newsletter.

Go deeper

Programs for crime victims leave families of color behind

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Weeks before he was to start his professional basketball career in Europe, in the summer of 2009, Aswad Thomas walked out of a Hartford, Conn., convenience store and into an armed robbery. Two shots to the back ended his career — and nearly his life.

Why it matters: Police talked to Thomas about the case but never asked about his recovery or told him about the services he was entitled to as a victim of a crime.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Congressman criminally charged with lying to feds

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) has been indicted on charges he falsified records and lied to federal investigators probing an illegal foreign donation scheme, the Justice Department announced on Tuesday.

Driving the news: DOJ says a Fortenberry associate, who later cooperated with investigators, informed him he'd likely received illegal donations from an intermediary for a foreign national, but that Fortenberry denied any knowledge of such a scheme when contacted by the FBI.

"Assassin's Creed," but for schools

"Viking Age: Discovery Tour." Image via Ubisoft

For the third time since 2018, Ubisoft is releasing a nonviolent version of its latest “Assassin’s Creed” game as part of a unique effort to turn one of the medium’s most popular series into an educational tool.

Driving the news:Viking Age: Discovery Tour” transforms last year’s “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” from a bloody 150-hour game about Viking conquest in 9th century England into a peaceful four-hour game about merchants and monks.