REYNOSA, Mexico — The deportees arrive after dark, usually between 100 and 200 of them, deposited by U.S. immigration officials at a bridge that connects the United States to one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico.
Many of the deportees, all Mexican, have been living illegally in the United States for years, and they don’t know Reynosa’s reputation. It is the least secure city in Mexico, according to a government survey. It is in a state, Tamaulipas, that is the only place along Mexico’s northern border to carry the State Department’s most severe travel warning, putting it in the same category as Afghanistan and North Korea.
From 2017 to 2018, the number of homicides more than doubled to 225 in the city of 600,000. At least another 2,500 people are missing. Criminal groups enrich themselves through kidnapping and extortion, with migrants among their most common targets.
Last year, a third of people deported from the United States to Mexico, about 60,000 as of October, were sent through Tamaulipas. About 16,500 of the deportees arrived in Reynosa. Mexican officials and human rights advocates argue that the U.S. practice of sending deportees to these areas is a flagrant human rights violation.
Mexico's new administration says it plans to formally ask the United States to stop deportations to Reynosa and other dangerous, poorly resourced border cities, and instead concentrate on safer ports of entry.
“The ideal solution is not to have Reynosa as a point of return,” said Tonatiuh Guillén, head of Mexico's national immigration authority.
Ricardo Calderon, Tamaulipas state’s top immigration official, greets the deportees almost every night, explaining how cautious they need to be while in Reynosa.
“The fact is, they’re deporting people to one of the most dangerous places on the border,” he said from his office near the international bridge. “If people leave here to get something to eat, they’re going to be kidnapped.”
Officials have catalogued a string of crimes against both deportees and other migrants. In 2017, the Tamaulipas government recorded dozens of cases of migrants being kidnapped or extorted by criminal groups. That year, the governor of the state created a program known as “Project Safe Passage,” providing a police escort to deportees as they navigate the city, a precaution not taken in any other state.
“I tell them, ‘Either you arrive with us, or you don’t arrive at all,’ ” said Mario Garcia, another state immigration official. The program also warns deportees that if they attempt to travel independently, they should expect to be kidnapped.
The threats are constant. In some cases, Calderon said, deportees have been taken away at gunpoint after withdrawing money to pay for bus tickets to their hometowns. In other cases, criminal groups stop southbound buses leaving Reynosa and force deportees out. The kidnappers then ask for several thousand dollars from the migrants’ family members to secure their release. In October, 22 kidnapped migrants, most of them Honduran, were rescued in a single police operation.
“They’re seen as easy targets,” Calderon said, “people with relatives in the U.S. who can pay a ransom.”
In 2016, Mexico's federal government agreed to limit deportations from the United States to 12 border crossings, including Reynosa. It was an attempt to streamline the process, even though the inclusion of several dangerous locations in Mexico angered local officials and raised human rights concerns.
When asked about the deportations, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement refused to comment on concerns about the security of deportees but said the Mexican government had agreed to accept deportees in Reynosa.
“Removals to Tamaulipas, like all removals to Mexico, are coordinated with and approved by the Government of Mexico,” said Brendan Raedy, an ICE spokesman.
Guillén said he would soon formally request the United States to limit deportations to fewer cities.
“This would help us create a neutral space and a safer environment for the deportees,” he said, suggesting that deportations in Tamaulipas could be concentrated in the safer — though still troubled — city of Nuevo Laredo.
Tamaulipas, in Mexico's northeastern corner, contains the closest border crossings to ICE detainees held on the East Coast of the United States. It is also not far from some of America's largest immigrant detention facilities, which are in South Texas. The last time the portion of deportees sent here approached 30 percent was 2014, and security in Reynosa has since deteriorated.
“Why Tamaulipas? Why keep deporting people through a place where they are consistently kidnapped, recruited and extorted? The U.S. response is mostly that Mexicans have agreed to it,” said Maureen Meyer, director for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America. “On the Mexican side, it’s been hard for the government to admit that part of their border is so insecure that the U.S. shouldn’t send anyone there.”
On a recent Wednesday night, a relatively small group of deportees arrived in Reynosa — 59 men and women — carrying the red nylon bags distributed by ICE.
Victor Quevedo, a state immigration officer, picked them up at the international bridge and led them to the state migration institute.
Many of the deportees in the group had lived the bulk of their lives in the United States. Pedro Giesbrecht and his wife, Anna Giesbrecht, worked on a farm in Ulysses, Kan., for 27 years. Salvador Herrera was a roofer in Minneapolis for 23 years. Juan Fragaso worked on farms and in restaurants in Del Campo, Tex., for 21 years. Some of the deportees felt more comfortable speaking to one another in English.
Most were originally from Mexican cities hundreds or thousands of miles away. Several were from Tijuana, at the opposite end of the U.S.-Mexico border. U.S. immigration agencies do not consider a deportee's city of origin when sending him or her across the border.
At the Tamaulipas immigration office, the migrants gathered on plastic chairs, near a Christmas tree. They were each handed a sandwich. Calderon addressed them.
“Because of insecurity, you’re not going to be able to leave Reynosa tonight,” he said. “You need to be escorted by police wherever you go.”
A woman named Henriqueta started crying. She had lived in California for 31 years and had nowhere to go in Mexico.
“I don’t want to live alone,” she said.
It was already close to 10 p.m., and there was a bus waiting outside to take the deportees to the Virgin of Guadalupe migrant shelter, a few minutes away. A police truck, with five masked officers, waited behind the bus with its lights on.
It had been another brutal week in Reynosa. The previous Saturday, a shootout at a local bar left four people dead and nine injured. That Wednesday, hours before the deportees arrived, another shootout on a main thoroughfare forced a nearby elementary school to keep its students for hours after their scheduled release.
Tamaulipas descended into chaos during the course of Mexico’s drug war, and it was often migrants who found themselves in the crosshairs of organized criminals. In 2010, authorities found the decomposing bodies of 72 migrants from across Latin America on a ranch 90 miles south of Reynosa. The Mexican government accused members of the Zetas, a criminal group with ties to drug trafficking, of committing the massacre.
Since then, the U.S. government has experimented with ways to keep deportees out of the hands of criminal groups along the border. Beginning in 2013, for example, it operated twice-weekly flights that took deportees directly to Mexico City, bypassing more dangerous cities like Reynosa. But that program was paused in May, and human rights advocates say the United States is ignoring the reality along the border, especially by deporting people to Reynosa after dark.
“Dumping people in dangerous cities which they don’t know after dark and putting them at even higher risk for kidnapping and violence makes the already traumatic process of deportation needlessly more damaging,” said Marcelo Fernandez, head of mission for Mexico and Central America at Doctors Without Borders. “The practice of nighttime deportation by the United States puts people’s lives at risk and must end immediately.”
The situation has become so bad that the city's Virgin of Guadalupe shelter won’t allow the deportees to walk outside until they are ready to depart the city. Sometimes shootouts occur so close to the shelter that nuns find bullets next to the dining hall.
“If they go out on the streets, they can be kidnapped, they can be forced to work as members of these groups,” said Sister Catalina Carmona, the director of the shelter.
Last month, the group of 59 deportees awoke in the shelter on Thursday morning, and a silver bus took them to a kiosk where they could withdraw money their relatives had sent them. Four police officers waited outside.
“They’re telling us this place is dangerous, but I really don’t know anything about it,” said Herrera, the roofer from Minneapolis.
Some of the deportees grew antsy. Two young women told Garcia, the immigration official, that they wanted to leave the group and head out on their own.
“It’s not worth it,” he told them.
That week, like every other week, the shelter had received calls from families looking for relatives, migrants who were missing in Tamaulipas.
But the two deportees, both young women, left anyway. Garcia muttered to himself, shaking his head.
“They don’t know what they’re doing.”