— The bedraggled immigrants were picking their way through the boulders
and scrub when a group of heavily armed men descended on them just
short of the
These lawless badlands in the hills east of
have long teemed with bandits and rapists, but these criminals demanded
only phone numbers. They started calling the immigrants’ loved ones in
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
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
and included a former Mexican army soldier. They admitted kidnapping
more than 100 immigrants over 18 months, holding them in remote caves,
makeshift camp and ranches.
“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
squeezed by a drug war, demanded higher payoffs, while U.S.
authorities, adding fencing and staffing on the border, were making it
more difficult to get immigrants through.
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
“They’re traumatized,” said
The journeys start out straightforward enough. In
recruiters scour fleabag motels that house immigrants waiting to cross
the border. Offering safe passage, the recruiters transport the
immigrants to staging areas in the ranch lands east of the city. Many
of the recruiters and drivers are women who bring along their children
to put the immigrants at ease.
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
toll road when they were confronted at gunpoint. They were stripped,
tied up and watched over by several gunmen while their families were
contacted and ordered to wire
A couple of days later, Mexican authorities stumbled upon the gang during a routine patrol. In the ensuing gun battle, a
deputy police chief was wounded in the leg by AK-47 gunfire. The group
was eventually captured, and members led police to the alleged
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.”
(c) 2010, Los Angeles Times.
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