Migrant kidnapping. It is the pan de cada día – a daily occurrence. That’s what I was told recently when interviewing people on the Mexican side of the Texas/Mexico border. It is the crime that everyone working at the border knows about, but neither country prosecutes the perpetrators and victims go mostly unaided.
These kidnappings are often binational crimes. Migrants are kidnapped in Mexico, but their families in the US are extorted and money transfer companies operating in both countries facilitate the payment process (knowingly or not).
This is not a new problem, although it was exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s policy of forcing thousands of asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their US cases to be considered. Some lost their asylum cases, because having been kidnapped, they missed their appointed court date.
I’m often asked, “Why would criminal organizations kidnap migrants?” Good question. By definition they are poor, or else they wouldn’t be trying to cross the border undetected. But extorting the families of poor migrants has become a solid business model for Mexican criminal organizations.
Years ago, ironically when the US border was less “protected,” migrants could cross by themselves or with the help of Mom-and-Pop smugglers. That model went out the window as the US invested more money in walls and Border Patrol personnel. As it became harder to cross, the potential crossing points narrowed, and control of those points became the territory of criminal organizations.
Now, if someone wants to sneak across the US/Mexico border, they cannot do it without paying a criminal organization. I was told that there are criminal lookouts everyone. If you try to cross without paying the controlling criminal group, you will be kidnapped. The criminal groups provide paying customers with a code. If you are stopped by one of their people you provide the code and are good to go, otherwise, good luck.
These migrant kidnappings are difficult crimes to prosecute. They take place in more than one country, so jurisdiction and evidence questions are complicated. The crimes go unreported. Often the kidnapping victim and their extorted family members are undocumented, in both countries. Neither country promises protection to the victims. Asking for help risks deportation. Then there is the power of the violent criminal organizations in Mexico who control the passage of migrants through Mexican territory and are often in cahoots with authorities.
When I asked at the border about how those working with migrants deal with the problem of kidnapping, one person told me that the best you can do is stay out of their way. Another said that they try to help in ways that don’t interfere with the business model of the criminal organizations. There are some Mexicans who attempt to intervene and navigate between corrupt and legitimate authorities and sometimes get victims freed. I won’t name them here, but they are my heroes.
The US has just appointed a new interagency Task Force “Alpha” whose job it is to investigate and prosecute migrant smuggling and trafficking networks. The Task Force was named by the Attorney General and involves both the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security. Migrant kidnapping falls within their purview. While their goal will be to disrupt criminal networks, this is the first time I can remember when addressing migrant kidnapping has been prioritized.
I try to put myself in the place of the victims or their families. I can’t imagine having no one to turn to for help. With Task Force Alpha, at least now it is in someone’s job description.
* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson