EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Central American migrants have always seen the Mexican Gulf region as the shortest path to the American dream. In the past decade, it’s also been the deadliest.

From the 2010 massacre of 72 migrants in a ranch in San Fernando to last month’s shooting and burning of 19 people in Camargo, also in the state of Tamaulipas, the footprint of violent drug cartels is evident in what used to be a mom-and-pop enterprise, border experts say.

“Immigrant smuggling has become a lucrative business for criminal organizations. Through violence, they have co-opted the coyotes (smugglers or guides), made them pay a fee or tax and in some cases replaced them with their own,” said Oscar Misael Hernandez, professor and investigator at Northern Border College (COLEF) in Tamaulipas.

A Rand Corporation study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security states that transnational criminal organizations in 2017 got as much as a $180 million dollar cut from an illicit migrant smuggling market worth up to $2.3 billion a year.

One of the vehicles involved in the Camargo, Tamaulipas migrant massacre (Border Report photo)

But that’s just the tax or “floor fee” migrants paid for safe passage through cartel territory. That does not factor in profits from the increasingly frequent kidnappings and ransom.

“Some groups are content selling only the transportation service. Others kidnap migrants to have their relatives in Central America send money to guarantee their release. Of course, it’s better for them if the migrant has relatives in the United States because then they can charge more,” Hernandez said. “But when the migrants cannot pay, they tend to disappear.”

The new ‘Devil’s Triangle’

The Tamaulipas Attorney General’s Office this week confirmed the identity of four of the 19 human remains found charred inside a pickup near Camargo, a Mexican town a few miles south of Rio Grande City, Texas.

Oscar Misael Hernandez

Two were Guatemalan nationals and two were Mexicans. Guatemalan officials believe at least 13 of the victims were citizens who left San Marcos Province fleeing poverty exacerbated by a COVID-19 induced economic recession.

The migrants used savings or asked relatives for loans to pay the smugglers and it was the smugglers who notified families that their loved ones had suffered “an accident.”

Mexican news reports quoting residents say cartel members raided a migrant safehouse guarded by rivals and killed the rivals and their charges. They drove the bodies to a farming community straddling the Tamaulipas-Nuevo Leon border and burned the vehicle a few miles from a military checkpoint.

“Traditionally, when you see these massacres it’s one of two things: It’s nonpayment of an agreed upon fee or a confrontation between two groups,” said Victor M. Manjarrez Jr., associate director for the Center for Law and Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso. “It could be cartel on cartel or a splinter group of a cartel. In any case it was meant to be a message. I suspect it’s going to be that.”

Victor Manjarrez Jr.

Manjarrez, a former U.S. Border Patrol chief patrol agent in El Paso and Tucson, said he’s known of drug cartel involvement in immigrant smuggling since 2006. Back then, he would hear about the occasional kidnapping but murders were rare.

“Back then, Arizona was busiest in terms of migrant smuggling and the Rio Grande Valley – and Tamaulipas – busiest in terms of drugs. Tamaulipas was a big concern for us with just the fact the drug cartels were getting involved in migrant smuggling,” he said.

The mom-and-pop nature of “booking a trip” to the U.S.-Mexico border increasingly became a nightmare for many.

“In 2017, we found out the cartels in Tamaulipas were making $100 million plus just charging for access. When you talk that kind of money you become very protective. In Tamaulipas, we’ve seen a very low tolerance for not paying to pass through certain areas,” he said. “They provide constant reminders that they’re in control” in the form of dead bodies.

Hernandez, from the Northern Border College, said a triangle-shaped area from San Fernando to Reynosa and San Fernando to Nuevo Laredo has become one of the most dangerous in Mexico. So much so that busloads of migrants have been known to disappear.

One of the vehicles involved in the Camargo, Tamaulipas massacre (Border Report photo)

“(The migrants) stopped being considered as persons and became merchandise or property in the view of some criminal groups,” Hernandez said. “They make a lot of money trafficking hundreds of people at a time. But they also become disposable” when they can’t pay or won’t work for the cartels.

The first massacre in San Fernando became a benchmark of what was to come. A year later in the same town, authorities discovered a grave with 193 bodies. Forty-nine bodies, some of them decapitated, were found in 2012 in Cadereyta, Nuevo Leon. And so on and so forth, said Hernandez.

“It wasn’t just people killed with bullets. It was people beaten to death and mutilated. Autopsies showed broken skulls, ribs and sternums. They were killed with hammers and blunt objects. Some were made to fight each other (to the death) for sport,” Hernandez said.

The latest victims near Camargo bear the signs of extreme cruelty characteristic of criminal groups. “They were not just shot, their bodies were burned to ashes,” he said. “It was to send a message though at this time we don’t know who the message was for.”

Reopening the border ‘will not protect them all’

Advocates in the United States are calling on the Biden administration to remove obstacles to asylum placed by the Trump administration. One of their arguments is this will cut down on violence inflicted on migrants waiting in Mexico or forced to hire a smuggler out of desperation.

But both Hernandez and Manjarrez said cartel violence against migrants will continue regardless of changes in asylum rules.

“Oftentimes, the migrant doesn’t qualify for asylum and even if they qualify, people instill fear they don’t qualify. That makes you turn to smugglers who sell you a dream, who sell you hope, and you believe them,” Manjarrez said. “Even if all it took was for you to walk to a port of entry, they’re going to discourage you, they’re going to say ‘I’ll take you.’”

Many of the migrants might have left their country primarily for economic reasons, which by themselves don’t guarantee asylum, the experts said.

“Reopening the border to asylum may benefit those already waiting (for a resolution). But violence against migrants won’t diminish until we have a state of law in Mexico, until we guarantee human rights,” Hernandez said. “We have not learned the lessons from San Fernando. […] there is a terrible confrontation between the Gulf cartel and the Northeast cartel. Their territories are in a constant ebb and flow. Migrants are extremely vulnerable under those circumstances.”

Manjarrez said he fears that continued drug cartel involvement in migrant smuggling will mean more violent deaths.

“You will see increased violence, not just in Tamaulipas, but all over the border in areas that traditionally haven’t had this type of violence,” he said.

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