US & World

New perils in Mexico for U.S.-bound migrants

The U.S. economic downturn and tighter border security has not deterred migrants from Central America seeking to enter the United States. But they are being abused in new and alarming ways. Tens of thousands of them are robbed, kidnapped and even killed attempting to cross Mexico.

Officials in Mexico say migrants en route from Central America to the U.S. are being abused in new and alarming ways.

Despite the downturn in the U.S. economy and tough new security measures along the southern border, migrants continue to try to get to the United States. And each year, tens of thousands of them are robbed, kidnapped and even killed attempting to cross Mexico.

Three months ago, 29-year-old Maria Pena Rivas decided to give up on Honduras. Her country, which was already one of the poorest in the hemisphere, is in turmoil as two men lay claim to the presidency.

Pena sent her 9-year-old son, Christopher, to live with her mother. She moved her 11-year-old daughter, Marilyn, in with her grandmother. And then Pena and two of her friends set off for the United States.

They had just crossed the border between Guatemala and Mexico when a group of young men surrounded them.

"The same day that we entered was the day they attacked us," Pena says. "They shoved me down into a ravine, and I broke my left arm."

She passed out. When she woke up, she was in a hospital and all of her possessions — her money, her clothes and her passport — were gone.

Her friends were gone, too.

"I never found out anything about them," Pena says. "I don't know if they are alive, if they've returned to Honduras. Nothing."

A Dangerous Journey

The Honduran woman was transferred to five different public hospitals before ending up at the Albergue Jesus el Buen Pastor in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula.

Among the residents at the shelter, Pena is one of the lucky ones. Many of the others are recovering from amputations after falling under "the beast" — a freight train that is a major mode of transportation for Central American migrants. One young Guatemalan is recuperating from a gunshot wound to the neck.

"We get women who've been raped, men who've been raped — because now they don't respect men, either," says Olga Sanchez Martinez, who runs the shelter. "People come in who've been attacked, people who've had different types of accidents on the road. We take them in."

Sanchez says that in the past she rarely heard of anyone trying to kidnap migrants, but now it is common. Los Zetas, the enforcement arm of one of the Mexican drug cartels, charges fees for migrants to pass, and they abduct others.

Economic Despair

With a tropical rain pounding down on her roof, Sanchez says migrants are like bait, attracting criminals and corrupt officials.

"They're carrying a little bit of money. Some have sold their TV or their small house back in their country, and they're carrying this money with them," she says.

Sanchez says the number of people heading north has gone down somewhat as word spreads that it is harder to get to the U.S. and more difficult to find work.

But no crisis is going to affect the flow of migrants, she says.

"Our neighboring countries are very poor. The people continue to try to find better opportunities. And their goal is the United States. Definitely no crisis is going to keep them in their country," Sanchez says.

In a report issued earlier this year, Mexico's Human Rights Commission said roughly 1,500 migrants get kidnapped each month trying to cross Mexico.

In September, the Mexican army stormed a house in Veracruz and found 25 Central American migrants being held for ransom. A couple of days later, the military freed 120 migrant hostages in a compound in Reynosa, just across the border from McAllen, Texas. The kidnappers often kill or severely beat one of the hostages to convince the others that they are serious.

'A Bad Dream'

Willy Goodman, who was born in El Salvador but grew up in Los Angeles, is in Tapachula trying to get a Mexican visa because he is terrified of crossing Mexico illegally.

"If they find me on the train, they're going to kill me, they're going to kidnap me, they're going to take my money," he says.

"One of the things people do is they call your family," Goodman continues. "When you're on the train, they say, 'You got a family in the U.S.?' You say, yes, they get the phone, start calling your family. They say, 'If you don't give me $2,000 or $3,000, this man is going to die.' "

Goodman, 37, says he was deported four months ago to El Salvador for driving without a license. The last time he made the journey from El Salvador to the U.S. he was 14. He is not worried about crossing from Tijuana back into San Diego; he says that will be easy. Right now, his big concern is getting from Mexico's southern tip to its northernmost city.

"My wife is American," Goodman says. "She's a citizen. That's one of the [reasons] I want to go back, because I don't want to lose my family."

Two months after he was sent back to El Salvador, Goodman's wife gave birth to their first child. Goodman says he is kicking himself for never getting his U.S. immigration status sorted out.

"One day, we'll be together and this is going to be a bad dream. But I'm never going to drive again. It cost me a lot," he says, with a rueful laugh.

And he doesn't want it to cost him his life. So now, Goodman is waiting in Tapachula until he can get a proper Mexican visa and travel to Tijuana legally before trying to cross illegally into the U.S.