NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico (AP) — The gangsters trawling Nuevo Laredo know just what they're looking for: men and women missing their shoelaces.
Those are migrants who made it to the United States to ask for asylum, only to be taken into custody and stripped of their laces — to keep them from hurting themselves. And then they were thrust into danger, sent back to the lawless border state of Tamaulipas.
In years past, migrants moved quickly through this violent territory on their way to the United States. Now, due to Trump administration policies, they remain there for weeks and sometimes months as they await their U.S. court dates, often in the hands of the gangsters who hold the area in a vise-like grip.
Here, migrants in limbo are prey, and a boon to smugglers.
They recount harrowing stories of robbery, extortion by criminals and crooked officials, and kidnappings by competing cartels. They tell of being captured by armed bandits who demand a ransom: They can pay for illegal passage to the border, or merely for their freedom, but either way they must pay.
And then they might be nabbed again by another gang. Or, desperate not to return to the homes they fled in the first place, they might willingly pay smugglers again.
That's what a 32-year-old Honduran accountant was contemplating. She had twice paid coyotes to help her cross into the U.S. only to be returned. Most recently, in September, she was sent back across the bridge from Brownsville to Matamoros.
Now, biding her time with her daughter in the city of Monterrey, she said one thing is for sure: "We are a little gold mine for the criminals."
Tamaulipas used to be a crossroads. Its dangers are well known; the U.S. has warned its citizens to stay away, assigning it the same alert level as war-torn countries such as Afghanistan and Syria.
Whenever possible, migrants heading north immediately crossed the river to Texas or presented themselves at a U.S. port of entry to file an asylum claim, which would allow them to stay in the U.S. while their cases played out.
But the U.S. has set limits on applicants for asylum, slowing the number to a mere trickle, while the policy known colloquially as "Remain in Mexico," has meant the return of more than 55,000 asylum-seekers to the country while their requests meander through backlogged courts.
The Mexican government is ill-prepared to handle the influx along the border, especially in Tamaulipas, where it has been arranging bus rides south to the relative safety of the northern city of Monterrey or all the way to the Guatemala border, citing security concerns — tacit acknowledgement, some analysts say, of the state of anarchy.
The gangs have adapted quickly to the new reality of masses of vulnerable people parking in the heart of their fiefdom, experts say, treating the travelers, often families with young children, like ATMs, ramping up kidnapping, extortion, and illegal crossings to extract money and fuel their empires.
"There's probably nothing worse you could do in terms of overall security along the border," said Jeremy Slack, a geographer at the University of Texas at El Paso who studies the border region, crime and migration in Mexico. "I mean, it really is like the nightmare scenario."
Yohan, a 31-year-old Nicaraguan security guard, trudged back across the border bridge from Laredo, Texas, in July with his wife and two children in tow, clutching a plastic case full of documents including one with a court date to return and make their asylum claim to a U.S. immigration judge two months later.
Penniless, with little more than a cellphone, the family was entering Nuevo Laredo, dominated by the Northeast cartel, a splinter of the brutal and once-powerful Zetas gang.
This is the way he tells the story now, in an interview at a nonprofit in Monterrey that provides the family with shelter and food:
The plan was to call and ask help from the only people they knew in the area — the "coyotes," or people smugglers, who earlier helped them cross the Rio Grande on an inflatable raft and had treated them well. Only that was in Ciudad Miguel Aleman, about a two-hour drive south parallel to the river.
On their way to the bus station, two strange men stopped Yohan while another group grabbed his loved ones. At least one of them had a gun. They were hustled into a van, relieved of their belongings and told they had a choice: Pay thousands of dollars for their freedom, or for another illegal crossing.
All along the border, there have abuses and crimes against migrants by Mexican organized crime, which has long profited off them. But Tamaulipas is especially troubling. It is both the location of most illegal crossings, and the state where the United States has returned the most asylum seekers — 20,700 through Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros as of early October.
The Mexico City-based Institute for Women in Migration, which tracks kidnappings of migrants and asylum-seekers, has documented 212 abductions in the state from mid-July through Oct. 15. And that's surely an undercount.
Of the documented kidnappings in Tamaulipas, 197 occurred in Nuevo Laredo, a city of about 500,000 whose international bridges fuel the trade economy.
Yohan's family was among them.
They had left Esteli in northwestern Nicaragua over three months earlier after armed, government-aligned civilian militias learned that Yohan had witnessed the killing of a government opponent, he said. They followed him and painted death threats on the walls of their home.
He is identified only by his middle name, because he and others quoted in this story fear for their lives and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Yohan borrowed against his mother's house to pay smugglers $18,000 for the family's trip. But he had not bargained on the closed door at the border, or the ordeal in Nuevo Laredo, and his bankroll was depleted.
The men who grabbed the family "told us they were from the cartel, that they were not kidnappers, that their job was to get people across and that they would take us to the smuggler to explain," Yohan said. Then they connected a cable to his cellphone to download its contents.
Yohan's first instinct was to give the passphrase that his previous smugglers used to identify "their" migrants. "'That doesn't mean anything to us,' one of them told me," Yohan said — this lot belonged to a different group.
Gangs in Tamaulipas have fragmented in the last decade and now cartel cells there operate on a franchise model, with contacts across Mexico and Central America, said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a political scientist specializing in organized crime, immigration, border security and human trafficking at George Mason University.
"They are contractors. They provide a service, control the territory, operate safe houses and charge for all that," she said.
Yohan's family was held in a series of what appeared to be private homes or offices, along with a family from El Salvador, two Cubans and two Mexicans. Everyone slept on the floor.
One captor, a 16-year-old, told him, "We have 15 smugglers, the cartel brings the people to us here and we take them across paying the cartel for the river crossing."
The gang had been hiring lately: "Since the United States is deporting so many through here, we are capturing them and that has meant more work," the teen told him. "We're saturated."
Initially the captors demanded $16,000. They gave Yohan and his wife a list of names and accounts; relatives were supposed to deposit $450 into each one without using companies seen as traceable by authorities.
But they were able to scrape together just $3,000, and that angered the gangsters.
"I'm going to give you to the cartel," one shouted.
Then Yohan's son came down with the mumps. The family got the captors to provide a bit of extra milk for him in exchange for his daughter's little gold ring, but the boy wasn't getting better and they abruptly released the family.
"They told us that the cartel doesn't allow them to hold sick children," Yohan said.
This is a matter of business, not humanity: A dead child could bring attention from the media, and then authorities, says George Mason's Correa-Cabrera.
After 14 days captive and before leaving the safe house, Yohan was given a code phrase: "We already passed through the office, checking." Only hours later they would need to use it. Arriving at the bus station, a group of strange men tried to grab them. Yohan spoke the six words in Spanish, and they were let go, and they went on to Monterrey.
On Sept. 22, Yohan's family returned to Nuevo Laredo for their court date, bringing with them a report on the family's kidnapping. Though U.S. law allows at-risk people to stay, they were sent back to the parking lot of a Mexican immigration facility, surrounded by seedy cantinas and watching eyes.
Mexican authorities organized bus transportation for those who wanted to return to their home countries. The family did not intend to go back to Nicaragua, so they asked the driver to leave them in Monterrey where they would await the next hearing.
After they were under way, the driver demanded $200. They couldn't pay, so he dumped them about 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the city at 1 a.m., along with four others.
Unlike other border cities such as Tijuana or Ciudad Juarez, migrants and asylum seekers are rarely seen on the streets in Nuevo Laredo. Fear keeps them in hiding, and safety isn't a sure thing even inside shelters. This summer pastor Aarón Méndez was abducted from the shelter he ran. He has not been heard from since.
Nor is it safe on the streets going to and from the station. A couple of months after Méndez disappeared, gunmen intercepted some people who were helping migrants make those trips; those being transported were taken away, and the helpers were told they would be killed if they persisted.
Kennji Kizuka, a researcher for New York-based Human Rights First, told of one woman who crossed into the U.S. for a hearing date, where she had to surrender her phone. While she was incommunicado for hours, calls were placed to relatives in the United States claiming she had been kidnapped and aggressively demanding a ransom.
"It's clear that they have a very sophisticated system to target people," Kizuka said.
In another instance, Kizuka said, cartel members were in the Nuevo Laredo office of Mexican migration, openly abducting asylum seekers who had just been sent back from the United States.
One woman hid in the bathroom with her daughter and called a local pastor for help; he tried to drive them away, but they were blocked by cartel members blocks way. The two were taken from the car and held by the gangsters, though they eventually were released unharmed.
A spokesperson for the Mexican foreign affairs secretary declined comment on allegations that Mexico cannot guarantee safety for immigrants returned from U.S.
U.S. Border Patrol officials said recently they are continuing to send asylum seekers back over the border, and that includes Nuevo Laredo. The number of people returned there has been reduced recently, but that was related to a decrease in migrants arriving at the border — and not violence in Tamaulipas.
In an interview, Brian Hastings, Border Patrol chief of law enforcement operations, told AP that officials didn't see a "threat to that population" in Tamaulipas and "there was basically a small war between the cartel and the state police" there.
But the numbers indicate the danger is real.
As of August, Human Rights First had tabulated 100 violent crimes against returnees. By October, after it rolled out to Tamaulipas, that had more than tripled to 340. Most involved kidnapping and extortion. Kizuka said the danger is even greater than the numbers reflect because they are based solely on accounts his organization or reporters have been able to document.
Of dozens of people interviewed by AP who said they had been victimized in Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, Matamoros and Monterrey, just one had filed a police report.
Kidnappings of migrants are not a new phenomenon. According to Mexico's National Human Rights Commission, in just six months in 2009 nearly 10,000 migrants were abducted while passing through the country.
Back then the cartels were splintering amid a government policy targeting their top bosses, leading them to fight among themselves in the people-smuggling business to fill two needs: money and labor. Kidnapped migrants generally were told they could avoid being killed by either paying ransom or working for the cartel.
Tamaulipas became a bloody emblem of the problem in 2010 when 72 migrants were found slain at a ranch in San Fernando, and a year later when the bodies of 193 migrants were found in the same area in clandestine mass graves — apparently murdered by a cartel to damage a rival's people-smuggling business.
Raymundo Ramos of the Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee said gangs today are more interested in squeezing cash from migrants: "They have to recover a lot of the money lost in those wars."
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has acknowledged that another massacre or escalation of violence is a major fear and has deployed more than 25,000 troops and National Guard agents to police people-trafficking in border regions and along smuggling routes. But all the accounts of violence in this account took place after that deployment.
Reynosa, a factory city of about 650,000, is the largest in Tamaulipas and home to some of the worst drug war violence. It's also a key part of the migratory route and one of the busiest crossing points along with Ciudad Miguel Aleman.
Disputed by rival gangs, Reynosa has the feel of a place with invisible fences demarcating their territories, and numerous migrants said they had to pay to get past checkpoints at the main entrances to the city.
Lawyer and human rights worker Fortino López Balcázar said the gangs first took control of the river, attacking and beating migrants. Then they started grabbing them from bus stations, and then from the streets.
The airport is also tightly controlled.
A 46-year-old teacher from Havana recalled arriving with her 16-year-old son Aug. 13 by plane from Mexico City with the phone number for a taxi driver, provided by a lawyer who arranged their trip. As they drove into Reynosa, two other taxis cut the vehicle off. Two men got in, took away her cellphone and money and whisked them to a home that was under construction.
The lawyer "sold us out," the woman said.
That night they were moved to a thicket near the Rio Grande where they were held captive in an outdoor camp for a week with dozens of others. They met another group of Cubans, who were also abducted shortly after flying into Reynosa: Several taxi and vans brazenly intercepted them in broad daylight, bringing traffic to a halt.
"It was as if we were terrorists and the FBI had swooped down on us," one of the men said. He speculated they may have been betrayed by an airport immigration agent with whom they had argued over their travel documents.
López Obrador's government has said the National Immigration Institute is one of Mexico's most corrupt agencies. In early 2019 the institute announced the firing of more than 500 workers nationwide. According to a person with knowledge of the purge, Tamaulipas was one of four states where the most firings took place. Some worked in airports, others in the city of Reynosa.
In February the institute's deputy delegate to the city was fired and accused of charging detained migrants over $3,000 to avoid deportation. Later new complaints surfaced of people being shaken down for $1,500 to be put at the top of wait lists to present claims in the United States.
At the riverside camp, the Cuban teacher was introduced to its "commander" who demanded "rent" and a fine for not traveling with a guide. The ransom was set at $1,000.
Previously the Cuban woman's only exposure to the world of organized crime came from movies she watched on the illegal satellite TV hookup that caused her to run afoul of authorities back home. Now, they were witnessing things both terrifying and hard to understand.
There was the time a man tried to suffocate another with a plastic bag, or when the kidnappers, some barely in their teens, beat a "coyote" for working for a rival outfit. From what she was able to understand from the shouting, he had been kidnapped along with clients he was guiding and they wanted him to switch loyalties.
The captors at the thicket referred to themselves as "the corporation," the teacher said. People came and went, some delivered by men in uniforms who may or may not have been police.
Edith Garrido, a nun who works at the Casa del Migrante shelter in Reynosa, said both crooked officers and criminals dressed as police — known as "black cops" or "the clones" — are mixed up in the racket, making the rounds of safe houses to buy and sell kidnap victims.
"They say 'give me 10, 15, 25.' They tell them they are going to take them to a safer place, and they give them to the highest bidder," Garrido explained. "A migrant is money for them, not a person."
The captors let the Cubans use their cellphones for a few hours to coordinate ransom payments with relatives, always small amounts to different bank accounts. Weeping, the teacher recalled how her 25-year-old daughter in Cuba had to pawn all her belongings.
After the ransom came through, the captors took her picture and she, her son and another woman were put in a taxi and driven off. The cabbie stopped the car along a highway, took her cellphone and said they could go.
She and her son now await their immigration court date in Reynosa, where she has found temporary construction work to pay for rent and food.
There's not enough space for everyone at the shelters, so many rent rooms, and that demand has pushed prices up. It can range from $35 per person per month for a spot in a cramped five-person bedroom in a seedy area, to $300-$500 for a more secure home.
But nowhere is truly safe. Last month a family from El Salvador missed their turn to present themselves for U.S. asylum after a shootout erupted in the streets and they were afraid to leave their home.
Garrido said some pay protection fees so they are not bothered in their homes, while others rent directly from the gangs.
"So one way or another," she said, "they make money."
Associated Press writers Peter Orsi in Mexico City and Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.