These lawless badlands in the hills east of
The days-long kidnapping ordeal in May illustrates what authorities say is a growing trend as roaming gangs of well-organized, heavily armed gunmen turn their sights on illegal immigrants, making a treacherous journey ever more dangerous for people trekking north.
In the rash of kidnappings, which began about two
years ago, gunmen hold people captive until family members in the U.S.
send wire transfers of up to
Little was known about how the criminals operated until Mexican authorities dismantled two gangs in recent months, including the one involved in the May case, in which 11 suspects were arrested after a shootout and a wild foot chase through the hills.
The arrests provided authorities with a rare glimpse
into criminal networks whose reach stretches from the border to cities
across the U.S. and
"We threatened the families that if they didn't pay we would kill the immigrants," said
Authorities believe several gangs continue to operate. With a network of lookouts scattered at key points across 60 miles of rugged, isolated terrain, few immigrants slip by them without the gangs' knowledge.
"They know all the trails leading to the border, from
The current situation resulted from a convergence of factors in the U.S. and
Organized-crime bosses in
With a smuggling infrastructure already in place, it was easy and profitable for criminals to switch to kidnapping. Federal authorities in the U.S. immediately noticed the trend. Many immigrants began showing up at the border seeking medical attention instead of eluding agents.
"They're traumatized," said
The journeys start out straightforward enough. In
At the staging areas, guides lead the migrants into the mountains, on well-worn paths, into the hands of gunmen. "For the guides it's a win-win proposition: They don't have to cross the border, or risk being captured by the Border Patrol, and they still get paid," one Mexican federal agent said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the media.
The deception doesn't end there. One gang, arrested in April, would plant a member in the group of immigrants. When asked for a phone number, he would immediately provide it and be rewarded with good treatment. Other immigrants, seeking to avoid beatings, would do the same.
"You've saved yourself," the kidnapper told a gang member disguised as an immigrant, according to one victim in a videotaped interview with authorities that shielded his identity. "He acted like an immigrant, but we found out later that he wasn't. We realized that they had never hit him."
In the May kidnapping, 11 immigrants were walking through the hills off the
A couple of days later, Mexican authorities stumbled upon the gang during a routine patrol. In the ensuing gun battle, a
The highly publicized arrests have made immigrants
aware of the dangers. Cupartin Sanchez, 27, interviewed at an immigrant
"I'm not scared of the Border Patrol," Sanchez said, "but I am scared of the kidnappers."
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