A score or so migrants crouch in the dark corridor of the safe house where they have been waiting for a month. Today, their turn has come to go back on the road again – not across the US border, however, but deeper into Mexico, to save their skins.
Outside, a minivan pulls up, driven by Baptist pastor Lorenzo Ortiz to take the migrants to relative safety, and away from kidnap, extortion and violation.
This is Nuevo Laredo, in the north-west corner of Tamaulipas state, opposite Laredo, Texas, the world’s busiest commercial trans-border hub. The people waiting to board the van have already crossed into the USA, but have been sent back under the Trump administration’s so-called Migrant Protection Protocols - known as “Remain in Mexico” – whereby would be asylum seekers must await their appointed hearing south of the border.
MPP was rolled out in January last year, since when an estimated 57,000 people now wait south of the border for their asylum hearing date. Tens of thousands more are waiting just for the initial application for asylum.
These are the faces behind statistics in a shocking report by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which found 80% of migrants waiting in Nuevo Laredo under MPP to have been abducted by the mafia, and 45% to have suffered violence or violation.
The door of the safe house opens and blinding sunlight beckons those awaiting, as does Pastor Ortiz, who arrives across the border from Laredo each morning to take a vanload to the larger city of Monterrey, Nuevo León.
There can be no tarrying, explains another local pastor, Diego Robles, from the First Baptist church. “If they walk to the corner of the block,” he says, “they’re likely to be kidnapped.”
Robles knows the risk he runs. Last August, criminals approached Aarón Méndez, a Seventh Day Adventist managing another shelter nearby, demanding he hand over Cubans in his care, whose relatives in the USA might pay high ransoms for their release.
He refused – and has not been seen since, joining the 50,000 disappeared in Mexico’s undeclared war since 2006.
The safe house – its gate kept closed with padlock and chain – is crammed with some 180 people, mostly indoors, some in a back yard enclosed by breeze blocks.
Their stories are terrifying and consistent.
Moy Eduardo fled his home in El Salvador after members of the MS-13 gang abducted and killed his brother after the family failed to pay sufficient extortion money. He eventually arrived at Nuevo Laredo bus station, only to be forced into a car and taken to a farm some distance from town. There, he was pistol-whipped, while the kidnappers called his cousin in Atlanta and demanded an $8,000 ransom.
“They said if I didn’t pay, they’d hand me over to ‘other people in our organisation’,” he recalled. Four days later, his desperate relative wired money, and Moy Eduardo was released.
He told the story to US authorities when applying for asylum, “but they didn’t believe me and sent me back”. Moy Eduardo has a court date in April, but is desperate to leave Nuevo Laredo. “I cannot stay here – they said if they saw me again, they’d kill me”.
“It’s become big business,” says Pastor Robles “It’s a way for the drug cartels to diversify. It is worse in Tamaulipas than other border states, and worse in Nuevo Laredo than anywhere else in Tamaulipas. There’s no formula to the abductions and disappearances – they are kidnapped, beaten, women violated; most return, but not all”.
Nuevo Laredo was for years controlled by the hyper-violent Zetas group, and is now territory of its offshoot, the North-east cartel. But their one-time associate, now rival, the Gulf cartel is knocking at the gates, backed by the Jalisco cartel, eager for access to the city’s vast commercial transit routes into the USA. .
While the Zetas/North-east cartel control migrant movement within Nuevo Laredo, the Gulf and Jalisco cartels often bring migrants to the city. And each group sees migrants and asylum seekers as a source of easy money.
“They go after the ones who’ve been brought here by a rival cartel. They have to pay twice,” says Pastor Ortiz “And the Cubans – because they know the Cubans have richer relatives.”
Inside the safe house, Yaqueline and her daughter Lisbeth, described how she was given a code by their coyote after fleeing gang violence in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
She was told that in Nuevo Laredo, the word “rana” – frog – would ensure safe passage. But when three thugs approached them outside the government migrant registration offices, they were told the word meant they were property of the enemy; mother and child were bundled into an SUV.
Relatives north of the border were again contacted. After five days, they were still unable to find the ransom money, and Yaqueline and Lisbeth were released to find their own way to Pastor Robles’ church. Asked if she had been maltreated, Yaqueline lowers her eyes, gestures towards the child, and crossed herself. “The gangs were bad in Honduras, but it is even more dangerous here.”
All these people have US “Notice to Appear” papers for dates months away, when they will re-cross the bridge into Laredo, Texas, and enter a tent court beside the Rio Grande, for a cursory video-link hearing to a judge hundreds of miles away in San Antonio.
Those summoned to court begin gathering on the Mexican side of the bridge before 4am. A group from Cuba and Venezuela assembles first, manifestly nervous.
There are 67 on the docket to appear at the tent court, but by 6am, only 29 are shuffled through into the canvas corridor, to plead their case, and await judgment on a screen from 150 miles away. The rest are presumed to have given up and returned home. Reporters have never been admitted into the Laredo tent court.
“The authorities make no attempt to intervene, says Pastor Ortiz, “the mafia is right there in the open, and there’s nothing done to stop them. It’s total impunity for the cartels.”
Local and national governments play down the abduction emergency. Edwin Aceves, the chief investigator for the Office of Disappeared Persons in Nuevo Laredo, said he had received “no reports of kidnapping and extortion of migrants. These are just rumours.”
Meanwhile, Mark Morgan, acting commissioner for US Customs and Border Protection, told a round-table of reporters last year he was unaware of reports of kidnapping, while Mexico’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, has said kidnaps were “not a massive number”; his department had information on 20 cases nationally.
Mexico’s leftwing government cooperates enthusiastically with President Trump’s MPP. In contrast to the pastors’ buses helping migrants wait in relative safety, government buses chartered depart daily from Nuevo Laredo’s state migration centres to take migrants back to the border with Guatemala. Even one of those was hijacked last autumn, surrounded by gunmen aboard pickup trucks, and migrants taken.
But here at the safe house, the minivan is ready to take people on a round-trip, to relative safety away from Nuevo Laredo, and then back again to cross the border when their date arrives. The group shuffles out of the front door on to the sidewalk and scrambles onboard. Pastor Robles says a prayer for the road through the front passenger window – and off they go, in the opposite direction to that of their plans, but away from the clutches of the mafia.