MATAMOROS, Mexico (Border Report) — The gruesome slayings of three American women and six children who lived in northern Mexico, reportedly at the hands of drug cartel members who control that region, highlights the dangers faced by asylum-seekers living in border towns, civil rights advocates say.

Advocates said Tuesday’s killings emphasize how drug cartels control border areas, wreaking violence on residents and migrants who are forced to remain in Mexico while they await their U.S. asylum hearings — part of the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols program.

“Mexican cartel violence is endemic throughout Mexico and appears to never end. Recent events involving the killings of the family near the Arizona border, in Michoacan and the chaos of the battle involving El Chapo’s son appear to suggest that the new administration has no better of a handle on the situation than prior administrations. I am concerned that the blind eye approach they are apparently pursuing will only make matters worse,” U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas, whose district includes Brownsville on the Southwest border, told Border Report.

Called MPPs, there are currently over 1,600 of these asylum-seekers living in a makeshift tent encampment at the base of the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros, across from Brownsville. The expanding tent city, which grows daily, is on land that is controlled by Mexico’s federal government and protected by federal military guards stationed at the bridge.

Border Report has visited the tent encampment several times and lately many migrants have reiterated growing fears for their safety.

Migrants tell Border Report that they do not want to leave the area for fear they will fall prey to drug cartels if they relocate further into the interior of this city, which is known for violence.

Migrants and civil rights advocates said that drug cartels have infiltrated the camp and watch them, and migrants say they are preyed upon at night.

Over 1,600 asylum seekers are living in a makeshift tent encampment at the base of the Gateway International Bridge, as seen on Nov. 1, 2019. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

Guarding each others’ tents

At night, migrants say they band together to keep guard over each other’s tents and families. Men sleep in shifts, they say, because of fear that their children will be kidnapped from tents while they sleep.

There have also been several reports that criminals sweep through in the late hours and rape or force women into prostitution.

A health worker, who requested anonymity, told Border Report last week that the women are embarrassed and afraid to report the sexual assaults. The worker said the women have asked medical staff for condoms so they won’t get pregnant “the next time they are assaulted.”

Kelly Escobar is a volunteer with the Resource Center who recently lived in the camp for two weeks. She relocated from Ohio after volunteering for a couple of weeks, during which time she said the asylum-seekers touched her heart.

She walks the camp several times a day and the migrants all know her, yelling out “Señora Kelly” and calling her “their angel.”

Kelly Escobar moved from Ohio recently to volunteer with the asylum-seekers in Matamoros, Mexico. She works out of an office two blocks from the camp called the Resource Center. On Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019, she walked the tent encampment with Border Report. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

Escobar said there has been an uptick in pregnancies in the camp and that some migrants are trying to get pregnant, believing they will be allowed to wait in the United States during their asylum proceedings. (MPP rules exempt certain classes of citizens, including the disabled and pregnant mothers.)

However, the healthcare worker who asked to remain anonymous, said some women do not want to disclose that they are pregnant. “They are afraid it will hurt their asylum case and that a judge will turn them away and not allow them to come to the United States” if they know they are carrying a child, the healthcare worker said.

Americans told to stay away

The northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which includes Matamoros, is so dangerous that the U.S. State Department has warned Americans not to travel there “due to crime and kidnapping.” American government workers are even forbidden from driving from the border to the interior part of Mexico or traveling between border cities after dark. They also may not hail taxis.

That is a major reason why the migrants — who have been living at the base of the Gateway bridge since MPP was enacted in mid-July — refuse to leave this area. Because once they leave this sliver of federal land, they are at the mercy of criminal organizations or corrupt members of law enforcement.

Matamoros is the home of the Gulf Cartel, but there are increasing turf wars between its rival, the Zetas, over this lucrative drug-smuggling pipeline to the United States.

According to a New York Times article from 2018, the violence in Matamoros includes: “armed robberies, sexual assaults, carjackings, murder, extortions, and kidnappings, the traditional kind with ransoms, and the express type, where the victim is driven to various A.T.M.s and forced to ‘max out’ his bank account, which, depending on the current balance, may take a matter of hours or days.”

On Friday, after news of the deaths of nine Americans in Mexico south of Arizona, President Donald Trump tweeted that U.S. authorities should act with Mexican officials to eradicate drug cartels in Mexico.

Matamoros wants to relocate migrants

Most of the MPPs living in Matamoros are from Central America or Cuba. They say they are scared living there, but they are more scared to leave.

Two weeks ago, Mexican officials tried to relocate them to a stadium about six miles south of the border, but they wouldn’t go.

On Friday, Desarrollo Integral de la Familia (DIF) a local child services organization run by the government of Matamoros, sent DIF agents in cars and with a bus to try to round up the migrants’ children. The agents told the parents that their children must relocate to a gymnasium about two miles away from the border, which they said was safer for the children. The parents were given the option of going with the children, but the parents with whom Border Report spoke opted not to go or to let their children go.

Federal Mexican officials, however, stopped the roundup, telling DIF that they had no jurisdiction on federal property. DIF is operated by the mayor of Matamoros and his wife, officials with the governor of Tamaulipas said.

Read a Border Report story on the round up attempt here.

‘We don’t want to be in Mexico’

Yamali Flores, of Honduras, said she held fast to her children on Friday when DIF agents came. She says she is scared to leave this area for fears of what will happen to them if they do.

Yamali Flores, of Honduras, said Matamoros officials tried to round up her children on Friday at the tent encampment for asylum-seekers in Matamoros, Mexico. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

Flores has been living since early August at the tent encampment with her husband and three children, ages 7, 9, and 13.

“The United States needs to help from the other side because we don’t want to be in Mexico. We need protection,” she said in Spanish. “We are in a new country that we don’t know. And we are scared. We want to wait on the other side of the bridge in the United States where it is safer. There is much violence here and we are watching the violence. We just want asylum.”

We are in a new country that we don’t know. And we are scared. We want to wait on the other side of the bridge in the United States where it is safer. There is much violence here and we are watching the violence. We just want asylum.”

Asylum-seeker Yamali Flores of Honduras

Helen Perry, who was volunteering in a medical tent with two doctors from the nonprofit organization Global Response Management said her staff witnessed DIF officials approach families and tell them they were taking their children.

“They were telling people that because of the conditions they were going to take their kids. That’s obviously very concerning change of events especially because that falls as a human rights violation,” said Perry, a nurse practitioner from Jackson, Florida.

That afternoon, Perry noted there weren’t many people who came to the medical tent — many of the families stayed in their tents and refused to leave for fear DIF agents would return and try to round up their young ones.

Rep. Vela said these migrants are being preyed upon by the drug cartel. Growing up in Brownsville, Vela said he often went to Matamoros, where he has family and where the bones of many of his ancestors are buried.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas.

In a speech On Oct. 30 to the U.S. House of Representatives, Vela urged lawmakers to reverse MPP to allow migrants to live in the United States while they await their asylum hearings.

“MPP forces asylum-seekers to wait in dangerous Mexican border towns as their claims are processed. It is proving to be nothing more than a weapon used to destroy America’s long-standing reputation as the world’s greatest melting pot,” Vela said on the House floor.

The (migrant) conditions are worse than those I have seen in Syrian refugee camps.”

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas

“Over 1,500 people now live in squalor in Mexico. They have no running water with a marginal number of toilets,” Vela said. “They are housed in tents and forced to bathe naked in the open in the Rio Grande River. their daily subsistence depends on the goodness of volunteers from the Rio Grande … The conditions are worse than those I have seen in Syrian refugee camps.

Visit the homepage for the latest exclusive stories and breaking news about issues along the United States-Mexico border