In the US, we have created a system that allows us to be blissfully ignorant of a horrible crime – the extortion of families whose loved ones have been kidnapped while passing through Mexico.
If you spend much time talking with those who work with migrants on the Mexican side of the border, they will describe it as “frequent,” even “common.” They learn about it after the kidnapping victim is released and seeks protection at migrant shelters or help applying for asylum.
It is next to impossible to track this crime on the US side of the border because the family members who pay the ransom, victims of extortion, have nowhere to turn.
Here’s how it works. Migrants traveling in Mexico, headed for the US are kidnapped by criminal organizations. Their cell phones are taken and used to call relatives, mostly in the US. The relatives are told to pay a ransom or their loved one will be killed. These calls are frequently accompanied by videos of people being beaten. In Mexico the crime is kidnapping. In the US the crime is extortion and illicit financial transactions.
Those on the receiving end of these calls panic. The kidnappers tell them not to call the authorities. Often undocumented, they fear reporting the crime to US authorities who might deport them. The families fear that local Mexican authorities might be involved with the kidnappers. They also have little reason to believe that anything helpful will happen if they report the crime. The extortion victims are often poor and try desperately to come up with the money, borrowing it or selling possessions.
If you were the victim of kidnapping related extortion in the US, where would you report the crime? If you were raised in the US, and watched crime shows on TV, you would probably call the FBI, or expect to be referred to them by 911. In the case of migrants, the FBI might take the case, but they might not. Operators at 911 might tell you, as they did to a victim that I recently accompanied in trying to get help, that the crime was in Mexico so there was nothing the police could do (not recognizing the extortion piece of the crime). The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has a crime tip line, but what person with questionable immigration status would expect help from Homeland Security.
Because this crime is seldom reported in the US, there in no data about how often it happens. This leads to the conclusion that it is rare. But it is assumed to be rare because there is no clear conduit for reporting; and, because victims are not encouraged to report. Furthermore, immigrant service organizations in the US don’t ask about this crime. If no one asks, no one tells, again resulting in no data.
It requires delusional thinking to take what we know from the border, that migrant kidnapping/extortion is a common problem, to arrive at the conclusion that there isn’t a corresponding extortion problem on the US side.
No one solves a problem they cannot see. To see this problem, we need to develop clear channels for reporting. Outreach should be done to encourage reporting. Those who report migrant kidnapping related extortion should be accompanied by hostage negotiators; any payments demanded for the release of their loved ones should be tracked and companies used to process the payments held accountable; assistance will only be provided to the victims of this traumatic experience once we understand the scope of the problem.
I recently spoke with a person who had worked for years on the prosecution of rape cases. She described the history of the work, and there were a surprising number of similarities. A few decades back, the scope of the problem was not understood because women were not encouraged to report. The police had to learn how to listen to victims, respond to and document their cases. Attorneys and the courts had to learn how to prosecute cases without repeated re-traumatization of the victims. Wrap around services were developed. Over time, “victims” were given greater respect and became “survivors.”
Extortion related kidnapping is a long way from that kind of understanding. Let’s start by recognizing that this is a crime in the US, make clear conduits for reporting, and encourage victims to report. This is a horrible ordeal. Can you imagine going through it without any help? I can’t.
* 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