By Gabriela Minjares and Blanca Carmona / La Verdad
First of a four-part series
CIUDAD JUAREZ – A couple who migrated with their daughters from Honduras to cross into the United States tells how they were cheated and fell into the hands of a network of migrant traffickers who held them hostage and extorted their relatives out of thousands of dollars. A woman who left Guatemala in search of a better life was turned over to the mafia by alleged police officers. A family from Honduras awaited their turn to cross into the United States practically hidden because of the kidnapping suffered by the mother and daughter.
These three stories show the barbarity and victimization migrants face on this border, after their journey from Central America and their trip through Mexico. Those who run shelters calculate that up to eight of every 10 migrants has been a victim of some type of abuse, their rights violated or as victims of a crime.
Nevertheless, it is believed that at the most, due to fear and mistrust, only one of 100 migrants who has been the victim of a crime has formally lodged a complaint.
“Experience shows that out of every 10 people we have had at the shelter, eight have lived through very similar situations, not just because they’ve been victims of violence in their own countries, and along the way here they’ve suffered all kinds of outrage, but because when they get to the border they are kidnapped or they’re robbed by the very ‘polleros,’ people involved in organized crime or the police themselves,” said a director of a shelter who asked to remain anonymous and not to name the refuge in order to protect the migrants there. The District Attorney’s Office of Chihuahua, Northern Zone, reports that from January 1, 2020, to May 11, 2021, 443 foreign nationals are registered to have been victims of crime while they were in this border region.
Part two: The police sold us to the mafia
Part three: A hellish 37 days among a group of traffickers
Part four: $3,000 for their freedom
According to information provided by the District Attorney’s Office, 313 foreigners who were victims of crime were registered in 2020 and from January 1 to May 11, 2021, there were 130. The crimes suffered by the foreigners range from theft and threats to kidnapping and homicide.
“Not only do they get here hurt from having walked so far, dehydrated or ill, they are emotionally and psychologically broken because when they think they’re about to reach their goal, which is to cross into the United States, they suffer violent acts, leaving them without any possessions and in some cases, with no desire to go on,” says the shelter director.
He explains that he has seen several cases of women, men and whole families who have been kidnapped for days or weeks once they arrive to the city, because a lot of times the traffickers themselves hold them under pretext while they extort the migrants’ relatives in the United States or they turn them over to criminal groups who have the same objective.
In other cases, he says, those who arrive to the city through the airport or bus terminal are approached by the police officers who work in these places or outside, who also take all their belongings, extort and kidnap them.
“That’s why so few migrants dare to register a complaint, because they fear the criminals will recognize them, will know where they are, and this could lead to repercussions. So, they prefer to keep quiet, and they avoid going out,” he says.
In the cases where the migrants have suffered crimes and have decided to report them, they have had no success, either, because all “they do is make them go around and around,” without resolving anything.
The member of the network of migrant shelters in this city, which operates under the Consejo Estatal de Población (Coespo), confirms that what the foreign nationals say about abuses and crimes is known to the authorities. In several meetings, human rights organization representatives who work with the shelters have brought the cases forward, but nothing came of it.
This lack of action and protection by the Mexican authorities of migrants during their stay or their journey through the country has also been noted by international organizations, which have documented high risk situations migrants have been exposed to and which have made them vulnerable to felonies such as murder, kidnapping and disappearance.
The plight of the migrants is documented in a research report titled, “En la boca del lobo. Contexto de riesgo y violaciones a derechos humanos a personas sujetas al Programa Quédate en México,” (In the lion’s den. The context of risk and human rights violations for people under the Remain in Mexico program), put together by the Fundación para la Justicia y el Estado Democrático de Derecho (FJEDD); Asylum Access Mexico; the Instituto para las Mujeres en la Migración (IMUMI); and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
The research shows that asylum seekers are abused not just by authorities, but also by organized crime gangs, since they are sent to border cities which the United States tells its citizens to avoid because they are “high risk.”
From 2019 to May 2020, the organizations documented 1,114 cases of kidnapping, rape, extortion, torture and murder of people under the Remain in Mexico program. These people were in different border cities in Mexico, including Ciudad Juárez; the victims include 256 cases of boys and girls who were involved in kidnappings and attempts to kidnap.
“The Mexican government, all the while knowing about this, has never guaranteed the effective exercise of human rights nor has it done its duty under national and international laws,” the report says.
When asked about this issue, Irma Villanueva Nájera, head of the Comisión Ejecutiva de Atención a Víctimas del Estado de Chihuahua, claims that between 2020 and 2021 they have taken care of about 80 foreign nationals who were migrating and were victims of some type of crime from several countries: Cuba, Honduras, Colombia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ecuador and El Salvador.
Villanueva Nájera says that their first contact with the migrants is through the District Attorney’s Office and the District Attorney for Women, who send the migrants to them and ask they be accompanied when they have been rescued from a criminal offense or when they come to report a crime.
As head of victim care, she explains that the migrants are vulnerable three times over: first, when they flee their country due to violence; second, when they are unsafe during their journey; and third, when they become victims of crimes at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“The care given, many times, is psychological containment or crisis intervention … and humanitarian aid,” she says. “Then there is legal aid, the attorneys offer information, accompaniment, and in some cases, we are their legal representatives in court, or at the Instituto Nacional de Migración or other areas they may need.”
In contrast, the migrants say the authorities tend to negate or minimize their cases. It goes no further than them listening to the migrants and saying they will take action, according to the director of the shelter.
According to testimony given by the migrants themselves in the shelter he runs and by other directors who belong to the support network, the victims have said that they have been victimized by the “polleros” and criminal groups, but also by police agents of every category, including those assigned to protect them who supposedly work for the Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM).
“Now we really can’t let anyone go, corruption has spread through every level of law enforcement,” says the refuge director. “It really comes down to saying, ‘now we don’t know whom to trust.’”