It is tough and perilous enough traipsing from the Central American states up through Mexico without cartels and gangs preying on you. But Mexico’s hyper-violent cartel, Los Zetas, is making it all a lot more dangerous.
The Mexican military is aiming to crackdown this year on human traffickers based in Tamaulipas and say a raid in February that rescued 73 undocumented Central American migrants being held captive at safe houses in the northeastern state is just the beginning.
According to the Defense Secretariat, 18 minors were among the group that was freed in February from three houses in the town of Ciudad Miguel Aleman. Four arrests were made.
Last year, military personnel and federal police rescued more than 250 victims of human trafficking, including Mexicans and Central Americans who were being held against their will in border cities such as Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo, say defense officials.
The February raid undertaken by troops attached to military region IV was part of Operation Northeast – a military initiative aimed at combating organized crime primarily in Tamaulipas and neighboring states. A spokesman for the defense secretariat says that the assaults on the three properties were “coordinated and simultaneous” and were mounted as a “follow-up of information on criminal groups, particularly Los Zetas, trafficking and operating in the state.”
The four arrested traffickers were handed over to the Attorney General’s Office (PGR) and the migrants were transferred into the custody of immigration agencies. Depending on their status in Mexico they will be allowed to remain in the country or returned to their countries of origin, say officials.
Cartels and gangs linked to transnational organized crime organizations in the country have turned the trek through Mexico for Central American migrants intent on entering the U.S. into an increasingly hazardous journey. Human trafficking has become big business for the cartels and migrants are prey to extortion and ransom demands as well as being at risk of abduction, forced labor and compelled prostitution.
They risk also death.
In August 2010, Mexican authorities found the bodies of 72 mostly Central American migrants on a ranch in San Fernando, a massacre an 18-yearold Ecuadorian survivor blamed on the Los Zetas drug cartel. The victims were trying to reach Texas and according to Mexican police were slain when they refused to work for the cartel as couriers and enforcers. The survivor, Luis Freddy Lala, staggered wounded to a military checkpoint to raise the alarm.
Fourteen of those massacred were women.
The survivor’s then pregnant 17-year-old wife, Maria Angelica Lala, told Teleamazonas in Quito that her husband had paid $15,000 to smugglers to guide him to the United States.
In the wake of the massacre, Mexican President Felipe Calderon denounced the cartels, saying they are “resorting to extortion and kidnappings of migrants for their financing and also for recruitment.” And his then spokesmen Alejandro Poire, now the interior secretary, told reporters at a press conference: “It’s absolutely terrible, and it demands the condemnation of all of our society.”
The migrants who were massacred came mainly from four countries: Ecuador, Honduras, El Salvador and Brazil. Diplomats from all four countries assisted police and federal authorities on the scene to help establish their identities.
Migrants heading for the U.S. along the Gulf coast have long been prey to extortion, theft and violence but the increased involvement of the cartels, and their determination to make a lucrative criminal enterprise out human trafficking, has made the journey much more dangerous, say government officials and those who work for migrant organizations.
And it isn’t only Tamaulipas that can be dangerous for them. Migrants moving through the state of Veracruz on freight trains and in trucks are viewed by Los Zetas there as cash cows. Stories have proliferated in the Mexican press of the cartel extorting migrants and forcing some to join the criminal group.
Last year, masked Los Zetas gunmen stormed a freight train traveling through the state and snatched 80 migrants, most of whom were from Guatamela and Honduras. Officials from the National Immigration Institute mounted an investigation along with federal prosecutors and state officials in Veracruz and Oaxaca.
Reliable figures on how many migrants are kidnapped each year are hard to come by and estimates range dramatically. According to a study by the National Human Rights Commission, at least 11,333 migrants were abducted in Mexico between April and September 2010.
In eyewitness testimonies—replete with allegations of beatings and multiple rapes—for that study Los Zetas is mentioned frequently.
A Catholic priest in Matamoros, Fr. Francisco Gallardo Lopez, who works with Central American migrants, told Agora that the coyotes (smugglers) of the past were bad enough. “They would cheat and lie and beat them up and leave them high and dry but the situation has got a lot more serious and abusive.”
In testimony before a UN Commission, Salvador Beltran del Rio, head of Mexico’s National Migration Institute, said the main threat to migrants is organized crime.
This was confirmed first-hand to Agora by migrants who had taken refuge in a shelter in Mexico City. A 22-year-old Honduran, Hector Mejia, said he had made his way to the capital after some of the migrants he had been traveling with were forced by their guides to accompany gunmen in two cars in Ciudad Victoria. “They were just taken. I think the rest of us would have been but they didn’t have room,” he says.
Especially ugly, the cartels have increasingly resorted to sex trafficking to generate more profits. Some of the women trafficked are Mexican but also Central American migrants are coerced as well, say Mexican officials.
Last July, speaking before the Mexican Congress, President Calderon urged lawmakers to help him fight this “new form of slavery” by passing tougher measures on the sex and human trafficking.
“There are thousands and thousands of cases, in a society that is still unaware of the seriousness of this crime,” Calderon told lawmakers. Arguing that confronting human trafficking must be given greater priority, he emphasized that the problem won’t be solved just by law-enforcement agencies.
“Lawmakers and citizens alike must take action,” Calderon said. “We have to create a unified front to end human trafficking in Mexico. This front is not limited to police or officials, this front starts in the streets, in the neighborhoods and in the communities.”
Estimates again vary on how many women and children are being trafficked every year throughout the country. The Mexican government estimates about 20,000 a year. UN agencies believe the figure could be higher.
“Los Zetas is the most aggressive in building sex trafficking into their business model,” says Rosi Orozco, a congresswoman.
She worries that when caught drug trafficking, criminals get harsher jail time than they do for human trafficking.