'I'm Kidnapped': A Father's Nightmare on the Border
REYNOSA, Mexico — He remembers being on his knees, gagged and blinded with duct tape, his hands tied behind his back. One of his captors struck his left thigh with a bat and scraped his neck with an ax, threatening to cut him.
His 3-year-old son watched and wailed.
“Tell the boy to shut up. Make him shut up,” one of the men barked, ripping the duct tape from his mouth.
A few hours earlier, the 28-year-old migrant from Honduras, whose name is José, had been walking with his son down a street in Reynosa, Mexico, having been turned back at the border by the United States. Suddenly three men grabbed him, shoved a hood over his head and thrust him and his son into a vehicle.
The abduction Nov. 25 set off hours of intense negotiations as José’s wife in the United States, forced to listen to the sounds of her husband being tortured, tearfully negotiated a ransom over the phone.
In a series of phone conversations, and in several voice messages reviewed by The New York Times, the wife, a woman named Cindy who works at a bakery in Elizabeth, New Jersey, promised to get the $3,000 the kidnappers were demanding. “I will do everything to get it,” she said, sobbing into the phone. “But don’t let them hurt him. Take care of the child.”
Hundreds of thousands of people fled Central America over the past year, many of them seeking asylum in the United States from threats of extortion, murder and forced recruitment into gangs. But instead of allowing them to enter, the Trump administration has forced more than 55,000 asylum-seekers to wait for months in lawless Mexican border towns like Reynosa while it considers their requests for protection, according to Mexican officials and those who study the border.
Drug-related violence has long plagued these areas, but this bottleneck of migrants is new — and because many asylum-seekers have relatives in the United States, criminal cartels have begun kidnapping them and demanding ransoms, sometimes subjecting them to violence as bad or worse than what they fled.
In the past, migrants from places like Central America, Africa and Asia seeking asylum were allowed to enter the United States while their claims were adjudicated. Those who could not demonstrate a fear of persecution usually were ordered deported to their home countries. That changed earlier this year with the adoption of the “Remain in Mexico” policy, under which most asylum applicants are prevented from entering the United States except to attend their court hearings.
With the Mexican government struggling to contain crime and violence, and ramshackle camps full of vulnerable migrants cropping up on the border, kidnappings have spiked. “Families on this side of the border, regardless of social status, will manage to pay ransom,” said Octavio Rodriguez, a scholar at the University of San Diego who studies violence in Mexico and the border region.
Authorities have doubled the number of police officers in the past three years in the state of Tamaulipas, which includes Reynosa, but it is not enough, said Aldo Hernandez, the state’s communications director. “Neither the municipal nor state governments have the resources to fight this situation,” he said.
Some are blaming Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and his government’s decision to step back from confrontations with drug cartels.
“The López Obrador administration has sent the message to organized crime that police and national guard will not confront you. That emboldens them to target this population,” said Tony Payan, a scholar at the Baker Institute of Rice University who studies the U.S.-Mexico border.
Mark Morgan, acting commissioner for Customs and Border Protection, said that those awaiting asylum hearings who fear for their safety should “work with the government of Mexico” to keep themselves safe.
“I have heard reports the same as you of violence,” he told reporters last week, noting that it is well known that dangerous drug cartels target migrants south of the border. “We encourage these people first of all not to even put themselves in the hands of the cartels to begin with.”
In the border towns of the Rio Grande Valley, the busiest migrant crossing point into the United States, kidnappers have struck in recent months near shelters, at bus stops and outside grocery stores.
A 35-year-old Salvadoran man who was waiting with his family in Tijuana after claiming asylum near San Diego was kidnapped, fatally stabbed and dismembered Nov. 20, Mexican authorities reported. His lawyer said he had been pursued by “criminal organizations” in his home country.
A 28-year-old woman from El Salvador and her 3-year-old son were abducted — not once but twice — after arriving at the border. The woman, who gave her name as Nora, said that in August they were held hostage until a family member in Houston transferred $2,200 to their captors.
Then in October, Nora said, she took her son to use the bathroom outside the encampment where they were staying and encountered three men. She was blindfolded, she said, and the men took turns raping her over several hours, in front of her son, before dumping the two of them on the side of a road.
“I surrendered to American immigration and thought we would be safe,” she said in a recent interview at a shelter in Reynosa.
There have been 636 documented cases of violent attacks, including abduction and rape, against migrants who were returned to Mexico by U.S. authorities since the Remain in Mexico policy began in January, with 293 attacks in the last month alone, according to Human Rights First. The advocacy group based its tally on credible reports from researchers, lawyers and media outlets but said the actual numbers were likely higher because most incidents go unreported.
The story of José and his family began in Honduras earlier this year, when they decided to seek safe haven in the United States. Gang members had demanded a “war tax” to allow him to keep operating his car wash and dropped notes at the family’s doorstep, threatening to kill them.
Cindy, who had a valid tourist visa, flew to the United States with their older son in June. José and their younger child, who lacked visas, made their trek over land. They arrived at the Texas border in July and applied for asylum but were told to wait in Mexico and return for a series of court hearings in the ensuing months.
The kidnappers struck in November, after José and his son had already attended two court hearings in the United States.
His captors ordered him to contact any family he had in the United States, he said, and when he denied knowing anyone there, the beatings began.
“You’re lying. This bat is thirsty for blood,” he recalled one of them saying.
José dictated his wife’s number to the men, and they called her from his cellphone. When she did not pick up, they clubbed him, causing him to keel over in pain.
When they called again, Cindy answered.
“‘I’m kidnapped,’” Cindy, who, like her husband, did not want her last name published because of fear of reprisals, recalled José uttering in agony over the phone.
Then the captors hung up, apparently hoping to ratchet up the pressure. When they called again, they told Cindy to come up with $3,000 within an hour if she wanted to spare the lives of her son and husband.
“I was completely desperate. I could hear my son crying in the background,” Cindy recalled. “I told them I didn’t have the money; I’d have to borrow it. Give me more time.”
Cindy sprinted to the home of the babysitter who cares for her 5-year-old son and collapsed there, pleading for help.
A fusillade of calls and texts with threats from the kidnappers soon followed.
“If you don’t deposit the money fast, we’ll disappear with your son,” the men told her.
Cindy called her husband’s cellphone again and left a voice message.
“José, send me — send me an audio. I want to know how the child is doing,” she said, her voice rising in anguish. “Respond! Respond!”
While she was driving to the bank with the babysitter to withdraw cash, one of the men in Reynosa taunted her husband and scraped his neck with the blunt side of an ax, he said, while another put a gun to his head.
On the next call, Cindy told the men she could manage no more than $2,000, and they relented. She rushed to a money-transfer kiosk to send the cash, and as the one-hour deadline approached, the captors urged her to hurry. “Si, I am here. Right now,” she typed back.
There was a problem, though. She could not complete the transaction without their names, so they texted them to her — unfamiliar names belonging to a man and a woman. In the text, they urged her to use Moneygram or Western Union and send “$1,000 to each.”
“This is the first one,” she texted, sending the kidnappers a photograph of the invoice for $1,009.99, including a $9.99 transfer fee.
Because the money-transfer outlet would not allow her to send more than $1,000, she rushed to another shop to send the rest of the money.
“As soon as all the money is here, we’ll free them,” one of the captors typed.
“OK, gracias,” Cindy replied.
Back at home, though, she received a call from the kidnappers: They had been unable to access the money. “We give you 20 minutes to fix this,” a kidnapper typed.
Eight minutes later, another text message popped up: “Hurry up. It’s getting late.”
Back in Reynosa, one of the men struck José’s right arm with the bat and kicked him in the stomach, and he began to vomit. The man brought a bucket and shoved his head inside.
After visits to three money senders, Cindy managed to transfer the rest of the money. José’s abductors stripped the tape from his eyes and put the hood back over his head. They dropped him and his son at the Reynosa bus station, warning that if he notified police, “you’re both dead. We have pictures of you.”
With no phone and no money, José said, he staggered across the bridge that leads to the United States to seek out Border Patrol agents. He pleaded to stay in the United States. “Our lives depend on it. I swear I am telling the truth,” he told them.
He said the agents took him to an office, where he remembers that they photographed his wounds and gave him a tranquilizer before sending them to spend the night at a holding facility.
The next day, José was escorted to a room where, over the phone, he expressed fear of returning to Mexico to an asylum officer.
About 40 minutes later, an immigration official told José that they would have to go back to Mexico. He handed him a document that said that José “did not establish a clear probability of persecution or torture in Mexico.”
Recently, José described his ordeal from a migrant shelter in Reynosa. He still had bruises and scrapes on his neck, arms and legs, and said his right arm — the one that received most of the blows from the bat — was still numb.
His son, who just turned 4, was playing with another child near the picnic table where he sat. That day, José said, he had been able to borrow a phone to call Cindy, who was crying when she heard his voice. He was crying, too. They did not know when they would meet again.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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