Kate Kilpatrick / Al Jazeera America

Into the arms of the cartels: Deported Mexicans sent to city ruled by fear

Border crossers increasingly returned to dangerous cities where they’™re easy prey for ruthless criminal organizations

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — As the sun goes down, an unmarked white bus with tinted windows backs up to an iron gate on a small back street that stops short at the Juárez-Lincoln International Bridge, which connects Laredo, Texas, to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. The gate is opened just enough to allow the men who step off the bus to slip through one by one as they’re escorted across the line on the bridge that marks the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico.  

This little road offers a snapshot of the hazy world of U.S. immigration policy along the Southwestern border, where zero-tolerance deterrence programs like Operation Streamline, which prosecutes border crossers with punitive criminal rather than civil charges, and the Alien Transfer Exit Program (ATEP), in which immigrants are repatriated to border cities up to 100 miles or more from where they crossed, create disparate and seemingly arbitrary penalties for immigrants who enter the country illegally. Both programs fall under the Consequence Delivery System of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

The explicit goal of ATEP is to disrupt immigrants’ connections to specific smuggling networks by transferring them to a different border sector and presumably unfamiliar terrain. But according to a 2013 Border Security report from the Congressional Research Service, “lateral repatriation appears to do little to discourage people from re-entering the United States.”

Instead of deterring future migration, advocates say, ATEP increasingly places desperate and penniless deportees into the hands of ruthless criminal organizations eager to prey on them. Unlucky ones might get dropped off here on the Juárez-Lincoln Bridge in the middle of the night.

The crossing between Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
Kate Kilpatrick / Al Jazeera America

Nuevo Laredo is the third-largest city in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, after Reynosa and Matamoros, which are also popular drop-off cities for deported immigrants. While Laredo is a relatively safe border city, the homicide rate in its sister city Nuevo Laredo is 10 times higher.

The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens to defer nonessential travel to the entire state of Tamaulipas. “The number of reported kidnappings for Tamaulipas is among the highest in Mexico,” the August update stated, “and the number of U.S. citizens reported to the consulates in Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo as being kidnapped, abducted or disappearing involuntarily in the first half of 2014 has also increased.” 

According to Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics, the number of homicides in Tamaulipas jumped from 266 in 2008 to 1,561 in 2012. And while fewer than 5 percent of repatriations were to Tamaulipas in 2006, the state has received more than 31 percent of them so far this year.

In August 2010, 72 migrants were massacred by the Zetas criminal organization in San Fernando in Tamaulipas. The following year authorities discovered 47 mass graves in the same town, with remains of nearly 200 migrants, travelers and bus passengers who had been kidnapped. In 2011 Mexican armed forces rescued 120 migrants who had been kidnapped in Tamaulipas while trying to reach the U.S.

Maureen Meyer, director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), said the U.S. and Mexican governments have recently taken steps to minimize the risks that migrants face at the border, such as limiting deportations to mostly daylight hours.

“Tamaulipas … probably has the most severe security risks for migrants — migrants deported, kidnapped, recruited [into cartels], robbed,” she said. “Even taking the bus home means a bus ride through states where people have been taken off buses.”

According to the State Department travel warning, “No highway routes through Tamaulipas are considered safe.” The local police force was disbanded in July 2011 because of widespread corruption issues.

Despite the tenuous security situation, Tamaulipas has received more deportees than any other state in Mexico so far this year, and Nuevo Laredo has received more than any other city. As of August, more than 27,000 immigrants have been repatriated to Nuevo Laredo this year.

“It’s a totally different experience to get dropped off in Tamaulipas or Coahuila than to be dropped off in Sonora or Baja California,” said Jeremy Slack, referring to the pronounced lack of security in those northeastern Mexican states. Slack, the principal investigator on the Migrant Border Crossing Study, a project funded by the Ford Foundation, spent three months living at a migrant shelter in Nuevo Laredo while conducting research in late 2013.

“When [I’m] doing research on migration issues, people disappear frequently. People go away,” he said. “But I’ve never seen so many suspicious circumstances, and I’ve never seen so many people that were clearly afraid for their lives.”

He said freshly deported migrants are regularly recruited by cartels to watch the Rio Grande to make sure no one crosses without paying the fee. They are promised 8,000 pesos a week ($590), to be paid at the end of the first month.

“People would start doing it, and then they would just disappear,” said Slack.

‘When [I’m] doing research on migration issues, people disappear frequently. People go away. But I’ve never seen so many suspicious circumstances, and I’ve never seen so many people that were clearly afraid for their lives.’

Jeremy Slack

researcher, Migrant Border Crossing Study project

The Tamaulipas Institute for Migrants in Nuevo Laredo assists people who have been returned to Mexico. Despite profound security issues, Nuevo Laredo has received more deportees than any other city in Mexico this year.
Kate Kilpatrick / Al Jazeera America

Standing against a wall outside the Tamaulipas Institute for Migrants in Nuevo Laredo, within sight of the U.S.-Mexico border, was a man who gave his name as Carlos Aguilar López. However, aliases are common around here as a layer of protection from rampant kidnappings and extortion, and no immigration or criminal records for Aguilar were later located. The institute, opened in 2011, receives deportees and helps them connect with their families, find temporary shelter and receive money wires for bus fares home.

Lopez said he’s 39, lives in New Brunswick, New Jersey, has lived in the U.S. since he was 13 and was deported to Nuevo Laredo five days earlier after serving a seven-month sentence in San Antonio for illegal re-entry. He said he was picked up during an ICE raid at the construction site where he worked. He said that his only criminal record is for immigration offenses and that his wife, Aida, and four children are U.S. citizens.

“They depend on me. I was getting $36 an hour working as a junior carpenter,” he said. “We never get help from food stamps. I work hard to support my family.”

Lopez said he’s still in Laredo because he’s waiting for a good “connection” — a trafficker — to take him back into the U.S. But with multiple immigration offenses, he faces big risks. If he gets caught, he believes he’s looking at 15 to 24 months in jail.

“Believe me, I’m scared. I don’t want to go back to jail,” he said. “It’s hard for us because we’re put with people who got 15 to 20 years. It’s really hard to deal with those guys.”

The United States’ Southwest border strategy has been criticized for funneling migrants through the most dangerous desert terrains, where increasing number die from dehydration and exposure on sprawling ranches in Texas and Arizona. ATEP, in recent years, has had the effect of funneling them into some of the most dangerous cities on the Mexico side upon their return.

A deported man who gave his name as Carlos Aguilar López outside the Tamaulipas Institute for Migrants. He hopes to reunite with his wife and children in New Jersey.
Kate Kilpatrick / Al Jazeera America

A migrant picked up in South Texas may be sent to relatively safe Mexicali, while another picked up in Arizona or California or released from detention in Chicago or North Carolina might be sent to a city in Tamaulipas.

“The problem is, it really comes down to a lot of stuff said to be up to the individual agent’s discretion, which is kind of code for ‘There is no plan,’ which opens things up to a lot of abuse,” said Slack. “If an agent can subjectively decide who gets a criminal charge and who doesn’t, that’s not OK. That’s not how our justice system works. If an agent can individually decide, ‘I don’t like you, I’m sending you to Tamaulipas,’ that’s not OK.”

There were about 30,000 more deportations than apprehensions along Mexico’s northeastern border, according to “Border Security and Migration,” a 2012 report from WOLA. In fiscal year 2012, 32,772 Mexicans were apprehended in Laredo, and 41,575 were deported to Nuevo Laredo.

As for why U.S. authorities move migrants from safer border districts to high-risk Nuevo Laredo or Matamoros, Slack said there’s no clear answer.

“We’ve tried to get answers about this — why they’re sending people there and not somewhere else,” he said. “There might be practical reasons in terms of where things are located and how contracts are set up, but they’re not apparent, and there’s no one from DHS or ICE or CBP who has been able to give an answer, at least in my experience with them.”

Neither the DHS nor the public affairs office for the CBP in Laredo responded to Al Jazeera’s requests for clarification.

Slack’s research suggests deportees with significant prison records are more likely to be sent to Tamaulipas. Perhaps of greater concern, though, is when migrants from states like Sinaloa or Michoacán, where rival cartels yield significant power, are sent to Tamaulipas. They’re at particular risk of getting kidnapped, interrogated or disappeared out of suspicion they work for rival cartels and are trying to invade Zetas or Gulf territory.

“That’s one of the big problems with ATEP,” Slack said. “You take [migrants] from one area and bring [them] to another area where [they] might be considered an enemy combatant.”

But even for men like Lopez, who said he’s from Oaxaca, Nuevo Laredo can be a miserable place to lie low and try to make financial arrangements to return. He said he took a construction job two days earlier, but a full day’s work paid only 120 pesos (about $9).

“With that money, I’m not gonna do nothing supporting my family if I bring them here,” he said. “Worse [are] all the criminals here.”

So for now, he’s stuck alone in Tamaulipas, weighing the desire to support his family with the fear of getting caught for something he — like most Mexican immigrants who enter the U.S. illegally — doesn’t see as wrong.

“I’m really disappointed because I feel more American than Mexican,” Lopez said. “I don’t know why they don’t just give me a chance.”

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