The steady wave of refugees pouring out of Central America and across Mexico’s southern border in hopes of eventually reaching the United States shows no sign of slowing down, and powerful crime groups are taking full advantage of what some refer to as the “migrant holocaust.”
In addition to producing and distributing narcotics, powerful cartels are now expanding into activities like immigrant smuggling and human trafficking, taking advantage of the abundance of helpless asylum seekers on the run. There have also been allegations that they are illegally harvesting vital organs from victims, especially children.
Meanwhile the growing crisis of gang violence and stark poverty in the “Northern Triangle” of Central America continues to cause scores of thousands of migrants to flee their homelands each year, providing plenty of candidates for exploitation amid ferocious violence. The death rate in Mexico’s Drug War is up about 30 percent since this time last year, with more than 10,000 dead so far, on pace to set an all-time high in 2017.
“Over the last several years more sophisticated criminal organizations have begun to take control of the migratory schemes,” says Eric Olson, the deputy director for Latin America at the Wilson Center, in an interview with The Daily Beast.
“[Cartels] that have traditionally focused on the drug trade have evolved into smuggling migrants,” Olson says due to the “highly lucrative source of revenues.”
In fact, some crime syndicates in Mexico make more money from kidnapping, extortion, illegal mining, and other such crimes than they do from narcotics, rendering the quaint phrase “drug cartel” anachronistic. Human smugglers aiming for the U.S. frontier can charge as much as $10,000 per head. They can also take the migrants’ proffered money for a cross-border run, then kidnap them, sell them into sexual bondage, or demand ransoms for release.
For example, one recently uncovered prostitution ring involved at least four cartels across 17 Mexican states.
“There’s a lot of competition among criminal organizations for control of routes and people coming through,” says Olson.
The Death Train
Many migrants choose to ride the network of freight trains that runs the length of Mexico. Some call it “El tren de la muerte” (The Death Train) and others refer to it simply as “La Bestia” (The Beast). Those grim nicknames come from the high numbers of migrants killed and mutilated on the tracks, as well as other dangers along the route.
Criminals often lie in wait near “control” spots where authorities inspect the train for illegal riders, because they know that many of those aboard will dismount to walk around the checkpoints.
One common tactic is to kidnap Death Train passengers for extortion, forcing the abduction victim to contact family in the U.S. or back home to ask for money.
“If they pay they pass, but if not they are beaten, raped, killed, or all of these,” says Dr. Javiar Barrio, of Doctors Without Borders. Barrio volunteers at a shelter for migrants in the town of Tenosique near the Guatemalan border.
“Other migrants are forced to dismember the bodies of those already dead to get rid of them,” says Barrio, who is originally from Barcelona. “They threaten mothers by raping their children. They force husbands to see how they rape their wife or daughter,” to induce payment of the ransom.
The U.S. Departments of State and Defense are jointly funding an $88 million program to secure Mexico’s southern border, but that hasn’t hampered the cartels and smaller gangs targeting travelers.
“While the Mexican government has been successful in detaining and deporting migrants, authorities have done little to address widespread crimes and abuses against them,” says a recent report by the Washington Office on Latin America, which indicates that the number of Central American refugees applying for asylum in Mexico has risen by more than 300 percent since 2014.
In fact it appears the number of those attempting to illegally enter the U.S. from the Northern Triangle countries—which consist of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala—now far outstrips those coming from Mexico, based on U.S. Customs and Border Patrols assessment of apprehensions by nationality.
People Smuggling vs. Human Trafficking
To cut the number of people riding The Beast officials have been speeding it up and posting more checkpoints—pushing migrants and those who smuggle them to use other methods.
One common trick is hiding them inside a tractor-trailer being towed by a semi-truck. But this can also have lethal results. Ten migrants died last month in an abandoned, overheated truck in San Antonio Texas, and dozens more were hospitalized for heatstroke and dehydration. A week later another 178 Central American migrants were found crammed into a single shipping container in Mexico’s Veracruz state.
As opposed to the small scale “coyotes” of years past, these kind of large-scale operations are often run by the cartels.
“They’re the organizations that have the transportation capacity. ‘Mom and pop’ operations don’t have the capacity to move that amount of people,” says Olson, of the Wilson Center, a global think-tank based in Washington.
The crackdown on the U.S. border over the past few years has also pushed would-be immigrants into the hands of the cartels, who are accustomed to evading law enforcement.
“As it became harder and harder to cross the border due to security measures, criminals were able to use their connections from the illicit trafficking of drugs, such as knowledge of routes and which border officials could be bribed,” says Laura Carlsen, the director of the Americas Program, during a phone call from Mexico City.
Carlsen says the added difficulty also makes the crossing more costly for the migrants, no longer able to cross by themselves, and more lucrative for the cartels, she says.
Despite the higher payments to cross, there’s no guarantee the driver won’t abandon his charges, as happened in San Antonio, Veracruz, and many other cases.
Sometimes the entire black-market border crossing is just a ruse to lure vulnerable victims into slavery. Mexico is the fifth leading nation for human trafficking in the Americas, with about 70,000 victims per year. The difference between “human smuggling” and “human trafficking” is that the latter employs “fraud or force,” as Olson explains it.
“People think they’re going to the U.S. to get a job and in fact are forced into labor or prostitution,” Olson says. “And then [the kidnappers] control everything they do.”
Harvesting of Organs
Perhaps the cruelest tactic allegedly employed by the cartels is kidnapping victims, often children, to remove their vital organs and sell them on the black market.
One high-profile incident occurred in 2014, when officials in the western state of Michoacán arrested a member of the Knights Templar cartel on charges of organ trafficking, after a refrigerated van with minors huddled inside it was discovered during an inspection.
Such groups are said to prefer children between the ages of seven and 10, and to attract them to abduction points with offers of cell phones and sweets. But many details remain shrouded in mystery.
“It is a highly clandestine criminal activity, which results in very little information available about this form of trafficking of children,” says Monica Darer, a Latin American specialist for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), in an email to The Daily Beast.
“There are indeed documented cases of organ harvesting, [and] the government of Mexico has been in denial about this issue,” says Americas Program chief Carlsen, who adds that part of what drives the trade is “the black market for organs in the United States.”
Many families send their children to cross the Southwest border by themselves, believing they’ll receive better treatment if they are picked up by authorities.
Young people traveling alone become particularly vulnerable along the migrant route.
“During their migration process, they are often in the shadows, afraid to report crimes committed against them (even serious crimes) to law enforcement officials due to their migratory status, and invisible to those who can protect them,” says UNICEF’s Darer. She also advocates “establishing more safe and legal channels for migration” as vital for protecting women and children.
Until that happens, however, the cartels will retain the upper hand, and continue to prey on those making the trek northward.
“They’re facing enormous odds, both because they’re having to rely on [cartels] who often extort them, abuse them, and don’t always fulfill their promises to the migrants,” says Latin American security expert Olson, who also cites abusive law enforcement and border officials as hazards they must face.
For many “that choice is more appealing than staying where they are due to the economic despair, lack of opportunities, and extraordinary levels of violence that they face,” he says. Yet in their flight to freedom the migrants are forced onto the wrong side of the law and often exposed to cartel violence.
“There’s no way to get to the border and try to cross without paying a criminal organization,” Olson says.