Warring mafias have turned once-sleepy farm towns and rail crossings in Mexico into notorious junctions of kidnapping, torture and death, creating a new geography of fear spanning from the U.S. border to the most humble villages in Central America.
The soaring number of attacks on migrants in Mexico, and the widely dispersed news of their barbarity, is discouraging many Central Americans from even attempting the trip to the United States, according to immigration officials, human rights advocates and the travelers themselves.
The flow of illegal Central American migrants to the United States has been slowing since 2005, the result of the sagging U.S. economy and increased law enforcement along the U.S. border, experts say. But a powerful new reason has emerged: Today’s migrants face a far more sinister journey and many have concluded it is just too dangerous.
“This is my fourth trip, but everything is different now. They’ll kill you for nothing,” said Darling Diaz Garcia, a Nicaraguan who was spending the night at a shelter in Tapachula across from the Guatemala border.
He had heard the horror stories of the crossing through Mexico. “Everyone has,” he said, but he was willing to risk it “to eat.”
Cheap hotels and migrant shelters here in southern Mexico that were once filled with wayfarers from Central America are now half-empty.
In Mexico, apprehensions of Central Americans have been cut in half, down from 240,269 in 2005 to 122,049 last year.
Even more telling, U.S. agents this year are catching far fewer Central American migrants trying to cross into the United States. In an average month in 2010, U.S. officers detained 4,242 illegal migrants along the southwest border that they classified as “other than Mexican,” meaning mostly Central Americans. In 2011, the monthly apprehensions of Central Americans have slowed by almost 20 percent.
The number of Central Americans trying to enter the United States without documents has been decreasing even as the U.S. economy begins to revive. Illegal immigration from Mexico has fallen as well, as travelers from Mexico’s impoverished southern states also face savage attacks and roadside kidnappers.
A difficult journey becomes more treacherous
The trip north has always been arduous. But where migrants once faced being robbed or molested, they now fear being killed and dumped in mass graves — or forcefully recruited into a gang and made to smuggle drugs — or abducted and tortured for weeks.
“Their lives are drained away at every step of the journey,” said Friar Tomas Gonzalez, who runs a shelter at the edge of this frontier town, just north of the Guatemala border. In a cement-block room, haggard men slept on bare foam pads, waiting to catch the next freight train north.
Father Flor Maria Rigoni, an Italian priest running a shelter in the border city of Tapachula, said the Central Americans seem more desperate to him now than when he arrived a decade earlier. “There is nothing for them back home,” he said. “They come through here like sheep going to the slaughter.”
Kidnapping crew members called enganchadores (hookers, literally) try to blend in with the migrants at his shelter to size up victims and deliver them to the gangs, said Rigoni, who has a foot-long beard, and wears a flowing white frock and a huge wooden cross in his belt like a pistol.
A dozen travelers sat along wooden benches waiting for dinner, warned to keep quiet about their plans. Their stories came in whispers. A young woman who left home in Honduras without telling her parents worried she would be raped if she continued alone.
Two brothers from Nicaragua rehearsed the technique for jumping onto a moving train and hiding on the underside of rail cars with a belt lashed to the frame to escape notice by the gangs. “That way,” they explained, “even if you fall asleep, you won’t die.”
At least 11,333 foreign migrants were reported kidnapped between April and September last year, most of them Central Americans, according to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission.
Many migrants just disappear. No place is dreaded more than the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, controlled by the Zeta mafia, where 72 migrants were massacred last year on a ranch an hour south of Texas, and where at least 193 bodies have been recovered from mass graves since April, including many still unidentified travelers pulled from buses and bludgeoned to death with a sledge hammer.
Six Mexican immigration agents in Tamaulipas were arrested after victims identified them from photographs and said the officers had handed them over to members of the Zetas.
The attacks have sunk Mexico’s reputation as a defender of immigrant rights. Stung by the criticism, Mexican President Felipe Calderon promised Central American leaders that his government would protect their citizens, and Mexican lawmakers approved stiffer penalties for corrupt officials.
Desperation and danger
In recent weeks, soldiers have freed hundreds of kidnapping victims from stash houses along the northern border. More than 700 migrants were detected this month inside trucking containers, their crammed, ghostly silhouettes detected by police in the southern state of Chiapas who were looking for illegal guns with sophisticated X-ray scanners.
Mexican authorities are investigating reports of another mass kidnapping last week in the state of Veracruz, where armed men allegedly stopped a freight train in a rural area and loaded their vans with 80 migrants, including women and children.
Jorge Rivera, a 25-year-old Honduran staying at Gonzalez’s shelter, said he was snatched off a freight train last year by kidnappers, who beat him with a board to get his family’s phone number. He escaped after six days, then turned himself in to Mexican immigration officials and begged to be sent home.
With his wife pregnant and no job, Rivera said he was desperate and set out on his second attempt in early June, carrying $100 in his wallet and another $20 in his shoe. Guatemalan police robbed most of his meager stash, he said.
Kidnappers were waiting on the Mexican side. They chased him into a pool hall, where police arrested him, giving him temporary protection in the jail. A kindly taco vendor then steered him to the shelter.
“I don’t know whether to turn back or keep going,” Rivera said, his eyes welling up. “What do you think I should do?”
Researcher Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.