By Gabriela Minjares/La Verdad

Second in a four-part series

CIUDAD JUAREZ – María, after making a trip of about 3,000 kilometers to get to this border to cross over to the United States, found her journey cut short by a band of alleged police officers from Ciudad Juárez.

María, a 28-year-old woman from Guatemala, said that agents from a public security company turned her over to an organized crime group who held her hostage, along with her 1-year-old daughter and another 65 migrants, for about 40 days.

“The police went and sold us to the mafia,” said Maria, who is from La Libertad, Petén, Guatemala. Her name has been changed for her safety.

She said she left her home on Jan.3 with the youngest of her three children to travel to Ciudad Juárez and cross the border. Her intention was to go to Florida, where her sister migrated two years ago.

“I got here five days later and those who were going to take me across the border took me to a warehouse to wait my turn. There were about 65 people. I was there for several days, until one Monday night the police came and took us all and turned us over to the mafia,” she explained.

En español: Lea el informe de La Verdad sobre la violencia contra migrantes en México
Part one: Migrants blocked from the United States are frequent victims of crime in Mexico
Part three: A hellish 37 days among a group of traffickers
Part four: $3,000 for their freedom

She did not know what company the alleged police were from, but described the group of five men and one woman whose faces were covered with balaclavas and who traveled in several cars she assumed were private, since they had no markings.

“They were wearing police uniforms, not military, it was a kind of faded green uniform. They had firearms and they told us if we ran, they would shoot us, so no one did. They started loading us into several cars and took us to a mansion that was all closed up, we couldn’t see a thing and they left us there with the mafia,” she recalled.

María said that the person in charge of the house said they would help the group cross over to the United States and when they were in El Paso, they should call their relatives to have them send money and be able to pay them.

“In spite of everything, we thought it was true, that they would get us across to the other side, and we said yes, that we would call our families to pay them,” she said.

The migrants held inside the mansion included people from El Salvador, Ecuador, Honduras and Guatemala, Maria said.

After waiting several days, their captors came to get them in order to ultimately take them across into the United States.

“One night them came to get us, and they first made us run along a little river, and then through a street. They told us we were already on the other side, that soon someone in a pickup truck would come get us to take us to a safe place while we waited for the money we had to pay them, and then they would take us to Dallas,” she said.

“Soon the pickup came. We got on quickly and they covered our heads with the jackets. They took us to another mansion where we couldn’t see anything and they held us there for more days,” she added.

As time went on, they realized they had been scammed by their captors. They had been made to believe that they were in El Paso, when really they were still in Ciudad Juárez. They had never crossed the Rio Grande, but rather a puddle. They realized they had been kidnapped, because while they were being held, their captors used the migrants’ cell phones to call their families and ask for ransom to let them go.

“They scammed us; they never took us out of Ciudad Juárez. They asked our families for money, $5,000 per person. In my case they paid $10,000; $5,000 for me and $5,000 for my daughter,” she said.

She explained that while they were supposedly in a house in El Paso, the captors asked them for the number of the relative who would pay for them to cross, since the captors themselves would call to tell the family member where to make the deposit.

María said that she gave them her mother’s number, who was in Guatemala taking care of her other two children, 9 and 8 years old. But since her mother had no money, María gave them her sister’s number in Florida.

“They kept us there until everyone’s money came in. Even though by the 10th day we started to get desperate and ask why they didn’t let us go when they (told) us that some of our families had already paid. But they ignored us. They just smoked marijuana and listened to music,” she said.

The migrants’ desperation increased and their complaints became more vocal, which made the captors retaliate with more drastic measures. They yelled at the migrants and punished them by not feeding them and even not letting them use the bathroom.

“My baby got sick because she wasn’t eating. They wouldn’t even give us a piece of bread and she couldn’t drink her milk because they wouldn’t send out for milk, much less for diapers, so I had to tear some rags or something to put her in,” she recounted, crying as she held her daughter.

Speaking with difficulty through her tears, María said the last five days of captivity were the worst, because the captors would eat in front of them and her daughter would ask them to share something with her, but they ignored her.

“I was so sad because they would eat pizza or chicken and my girl would ask for some, but they wouldn’t give it to her, they ignored her, she cried but they gave her nothing, they had no heart,” she said.

When they had been in captivity for 40 days, the captors, who she describeed as young men with tattoos, got angry with the increase in complaints and told them that they would start to take them away at night to get them to their destination.

“They told us they would take us to Dallas, because supposedly we were already in El Paso, so first they took 20, and then the remaining 20. In the end, they took me with two boys and they dropped us off close to a church, maybe because I had the baby they left us there, and not out in the middle of nowhere,” she said.

When they asked for help at the church, they realized they had been scammed; that they were still in Ciudad Juárez and not in the United States as they were led to believe.

That night, she said, the church pastor took them to his home and gave them dinner because they had not eaten for several days. He let them sleep, then the next day he took them to a migrant shelter.

She added that at the migrant refuge they were put in contact with immigration authorities, who she was unable to identify, and from there they were sent to another shelter, whose directors asked not to be even mentioned out of an abundance of caution.

“We were held for about 40 days, all told. In the beginning we did believe they would take us there (to their destination). We had no idea it would be like that, because when we started praying, one of them even prayed with us. But as time went by, we began to lose hope,” she said.

María added that when she was released, she called her mother, who told her that she knew María had been kidnapped because of the call they made to ask her for money and because, later, when she called them back, they never answered.

María, who decided to migrate to the United States to look for work after her husband left her and their three children, said that she only took the youngest with her because she was only able to get a loan for 120,000 quetzals (about $16,000) to pay for her trip from Guatemala to Florida.

She tells of how she made the trip with “guides” (migrant traffickers), who she contracted within her hometown. She was taken by truck from Petén to Huehuetenango, Guatemala, and she continued in a car to Gracias de Dios, which borders Chiapas, where she entered Mexico and from there to Ciudad Juárez, along the highway changing pickups at several points.

At the time of this interview in mid-March, she was upset because her daughter still suffered from not having had enough to eat during their captivity. María said that once she was released, she immediately tried to find a way to cross into the United States.

She mentioned that she went to one of the bridges to turn herself in to U.S. Border Patrol, but the agents recommended she return to Mexico to wait, because otherwise she could be deported back to her own country.

“I was very sad when I got back to the shelter because I don’t know how long I will be here. But I will wait. I have suffered too much to go back to Guatemala. I will stay as long as it takes to find out if I can get to my sister up there (in Florida),” she said.

The shelter reported that after a few weeks María was able to cross into the United States with her daughter, who recovered under medical care.

There is no official report of the kidnapping the group suffered in Ciudad Juárez. María declined to file a complaint out of fear or mistrust, since she maintained that it was the police who turned them over to the criminals who held them in captivity. She chose to leave instead of seeking justice.

This story was produced as part of the Puente News Collaborative, a binational partnership of news organizations in Ciudad Juárez and El Paso.