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It had been six days.
Six days of crying herself to sleep with worry and fear.
Six days of not hearing from her daughter, lost somewhere in the expanses of Mexico, a country notorious for violence and the disappearances of men and women.
Irene, 64, a lifelong resident of Lima, Peru, had said goodbye to her daughter Julieta at the local airport less than two weeks earlier. The mother and daughter had been in constant contact since then – until suddenly, all communication from Julieta ceased.
“There was a moment when she was on a bus and then – nothing,” Irene said. “I knew something was wrong.”
She didn’t know if Julieta was dead or alive, somewhere along the migratory route from Peru through Mexico that she had hoped would take her to safety and a new life in the United States.
Irene had always been extremely close with Julieta, the younger of her two children. She’d raised her in a small house in the Los Olivos district of Peru’s capital where three generations of women – Julieta, Irene and Irene’s mother – still lived together.
Julieta, 29, had been working at a publicity company in Lima for three years, making her way up to a supervisory position. In October, she began receiving threats from an ex-employee whom she had fired.
She brushed off the messages as bothersome pranks at first, but the threats escalated. She and her mother began to fear for her safety as the harassment grew, but believed it would be futile to report the threats to authorities.
“The situation is horrible” in many Latin American countries, Julieta said. “There is crime, there are femicides, there is insecurity. There is no justice.”
The only solution, she believed, would be to leave. A friend told her that it was “simple” to get into the United States from Mexico. She brought the idea to Irene.
“I told her, ‘I love you very much, but the most important thing for me is your life. If you need to leave, even if I’ll be sending my heart away with you, I’ll accept it,’” Irene said.
In hindsight, Julieta wishes she had had better information about the risks of migrating through Mexico, where she was robbed and kidnapped before finally arriving at the El Paso-Juárez border.
But at the time, Julieta only saw hope in her friend’s words.
A plane, a bus and a kidnapping
Julieta took a flight out of Peru on Nov. 28 and landed in Cancun. She spent a few days in a hotel there, talking with her mom and sending pictures of the beach-resort city.
Then she got on a bus to Puebla, Mexico, a trip that takes about 24 hours. Along this route, she said, her bus was stopped nine times by individuals at roadblocks, sometimes claiming to be Mexican law enforcement or immigration officers and sometimes dressed as civilians. They boarded the bus, demanding money. Those who did not pay, she said, were taken off the bus.
In Puebla, which is just south of Mexico City, she bought a bus ticket to Juárez. At a roadblock outside the city of Gomez Palacios, Durango, men made her get off the bus, she said. They took her identification and her cell phone.
She would not speak to her family again for six days.
Along with people from Honduras, Nicaragua and Colombia, she was forced onto another bus. Julieta and the other passengers knew something had gone wrong.
“He wouldn’t tell us where he was taking us,” Julieta said. “People, in desperation, began to jump out of the windows while we were moving. (People) began to beat the driver to make him stop.”
The bus pulled into a gas station in Gomez Palacios where, with relief, the passengers spotted a police unit. They cried out for help, Julieta said, thinking they had been saved.
“(The police) pretended to arrest the driver. They told us they were taking us to a house, a shelter where we could get food and sleep. They put us all in a van,” Julieta said. “They took us to an area that was very far away and very dark, and that’s when we realized what they had told us was…well, (not the truth).”
When they stepped out of the vehicle into the darkness, men pointed guns at them and forced them into a building. There, hundreds of other victims waited, hoping their ransom would be paid.
Julieta had been kidnapped. She had no money and no way to contact her family.
“My whole family is Christian and we believe in God,” Julieta said. “So the only thing I could do was put myself in God’s hands.”
Julieta slept as best she could on the crowded floor. Each morning, she and the others were forced to get in line to try to contact relatives one by one. Even after days, though, she had not reached the front of the line to make a call to her family.
Fear, anguish and the rescue
At home in Lima, Irene fell into deep anguish, fearing something unspeakable had happened to Julieta.
“I cried in my bed and I begged God to send angels to help my daughter,” Irene said.
Only her responsibilities toward her 90-year-old mother gave Irene enough motivation to make it through each day.
Locked in a house in Durango, Julieta suffered extreme appetite loss due to her fear and anguish at not being able to contact her mother.
On the sixth day of her captivity, she noticed that drones were flying over the property. The kidnappers sent all of the migrants indoors and ordered them to be silent.
Shortly after, the Mexican military rescue began. Many among the kidnapped “went crazy with desperation,” Julieta said. “They went into a rage, burning cars and vandalizing the house.”
Some of the kidnappers who had guarded the prisoners had told Julieta that her documents would be returned to her once her ransom was paid. But she never found them.
She borrowed the phone of a fellow Peruvian and called a cousin in the United States, the only phone number she remembered, to get her brother’s number.
“When I called my brother and I heard his voice, I broke down,” Julieta said. “I wept. Since leaving Peru, I had not cried. When I was kidnapped, I went into a state of shock. I didn’t really absorb what was happening until I had been freed.”
The cousin called Irene with the news. When Irene finally made direct contact with Julieta, she found her daughter too traumatized and overwhelmed to speak.
All of the rescued migrants set out walking until they reached a shelter where they were given food and some medical treatment.
From then on,“I depended completely on the goodwill of others,” Julieta said.
People occasionally let her use their phones, but only for very quick communications as everyone worried about being unable to recharge their batteries.
“The phone was everything for us, it was the only tie I had with my daughter,” Irene said. “I was happy each time I heard her voice, but at the same time I thought, ‘Dear God, please get her out of that country.’”
When they reached the state of Chihuahua days later, authorities told the group that they would provide buses and a police escort to Juárez.
On the morning of Dec. 11, a caravan of buses escorted by Chihuahua State Police arrived in Juárez carrying nearly 1,500 migrants, most from Nicaragua and Ecuador. Julieta, along with hundreds of other victims of the mass kidnapping in Durango, was aboard one of those buses.
As they arrived at the federally-operated Leona Vicario shelter, most of the migrants expressed frustration and distrust. They had believed that the buses would take them directly to the Rio Grande and felt they had been deceived, again.
“I was afraid to be in Mexico but I was also afraid to be deported back to Peru, because I don’t feel safe in my country either,” Julieta said.
The group set out walking again, following the Eje Vial Juan Gabriel Boulevard north toward the Rio Grande. Almost two hours later, Julieta, exhausted, nearly gave up. With the trauma of her kidnapping, she was too afraid to get in a taxi or bus. Her companions motivated her to press forward.
‘You made it!’
Then she saw the river for the first time through the darkness.
“The only thing in my mind was ‘I am almost there and I hope they accept me,’” Julieta said.
Around her, hundreds of other migrants were also arriving at the bank of the river. Those who arrived first crossed in small groups of five or 10 people, some carrying backpacks and others small children.
A Venezuelan man stood in the river near the railroad bridge west of the Paso del Norte port of entry. He shouted up to the migrants coming down the bank: “Welcome to the United States! You made it!” In a sudden wave, hundreds of people climbed down the levee wall and slid into the shallow water.
Julieta was among them. She took off her shoes and waded across the knee-deep river to take her place in the growing line of Central and South Americans who waited on the El Paso side of the river to be processed by U.S. Border Patrol agents.
Shivering in wet clothes, she borrowed a phone to send Irene a message saying she’d arrived in the United States.
When Julieta reached the front of the processing line the next day, agents gave her food but took away all of her remaining possessions.
“I felt more at ease, because I thought, ‘I am in the hands of American police, not Mexican,’” Julieta said. “I feel bad saying this, but I did not feel safe with the Mexican police.”
She called her cousin, who bought her ticket to New York, and she left El Paso on Dec. 14.
“I am just now able to breathe again, just now able to be a little more at ease,” Julieta told El Paso Matters from her cousin’s home in New York. “I can imagine how horrible these days were for my mom. I think it will be some time before she also heals. The only thread we had was the cell phones of random strangers.”
Nothing but dreams and goals
Julieta never thought she would be a migrant or asylum seeker. She had enjoyed a middle-class life in Peru. She had close friends and a loving family, a job that challenged her, and she often traveled with her mother.
“Sometimes there are circumstances in your country that just don’t let you continue (to live there),” Julieta said.
Julieta’s opportunity for a second chance has helped Irene take small pleasures in her own life again. In mid-December, she began to decorate a Christmas tree and string lights around her garden. She let herself imagine the kind of Christmas her daughter would be seeing for the first time in a new country – like the Netflix movies they watched together that showed holiday lights in New York.
“She left an emptiness in me, but mothers cannot be selfish,” Irene said. “I miss her, but I am at peace because she is safe now.”
Still, Irene sees signs of lingering trauma in her daughter. Julieta is not the same person who left Peru full of optimism and naive of danger.
“I feel guilty,” Irene said. “There were times that I cried, thinking I should not have let her go. I have cried so much I don’t have any tears left. Each time I remember that they could have killed my daughter, I feel like I’m dying.”
In the United States, Julieta spent the holidays with her cousin, recuperating from physical and emotional wounds. She was dehydrated, her body bruised from weeks of sleeping on the ground and her feet covered in blisters from walking long distances. She is still afraid of taking rides in buses or taxis. She carries the trauma of the kidnapping and the fearful days she was in captivity.
Julieta’s future is by no means certain. She was released pending a hearing on her asylum petition. That hearing has yet to be scheduled, and its outcome will not be guaranteed. She needs money to replace her passport and other lost documents, but asylum seekers sometimes wait months to receive a work authorization.
Irene hopes that her and her daughter’s story will help others understand the risks of a migration journey before making their decision. But no one, she said, decides to migrate just because.
From New York, Julieta agrees. She left fleeing death threats, but now she would be out of work anyway as her former company has shut down in response to Peru’s ongoing political crisis. The country’s former president was impeached and arrested after attempting to dissolve Congress last month. Over 50 people have been killed in clashes between protestors and security forces.
“It is not easy to leave your country, your family, your friends, and start again here from zero,” Julieta said. “You arrive with the clothes on your back and nothing else except your dreams and goals, because no one can take that from you.”
Irene is the only one of her siblings still living in Peru. She said she can’t leave Lima as long as her mother needs care. But she imagines the day that she will see Julieta again.
“We are separated by distance but united in our hearts,” Irene said with tears in her voice. “This season will pass. The moment will come when I can hug my daughter and tell her how much I love her and how brave she has been.”
El Paso Matters reporter Victoria Rossi contributed to this story.