Central American migrants traveling through Mexico towards the United States face many potential dangers during their time in Mexico territory. Robbers, assailants, gangs, and corrupt police and officials patrol common migrant pathways to rob, abuse, and assault them as they pass. Additional dangers come from wildlife or a possible accident on the cargo train many migrants utilize to travel northward.
On top of all these dangers, a new threat is quickly gaining in severity and frequency. Los Zetas, a powerful gang made up of ex-soldiers from Mexico, has targeted migrants in order to exhort money and increase their power.
A common way that the Zetas harm migrants is through kidnappings. Migrants are kidnapped along the route northwards, and then held for ransom from their families.
The Zetas have mostly likely targeted migrants for these kidnappings because their vulnerable situation as undocumented in the country makes them “easy prey.” Many travel alone or in small groups. Their undocumented status causes them to seek out unpopulated areas for traveling and to avoid authorities. These factors make it easier for the kidnappers to assault them during the journey. The victim is then brought to a remote location and the family is contacted.
The victims of the Zetas are rarely “random.” Certain migrants are chosen whom the Zetas believe to have relatives that will be able to pay large ransoms. Migrants with relatives already living in the United States seem to be targeted. Nevertheless, there are cases where migrants with very poor families have been kidnapped. In these cases, there is money available because the family has borrowed money from family and neighbors and has saved it away in order to pay the smuggler or “coyote” to cross the northern border into the U.S. The money is considered an “investment” in the earnings that the family member will hopefully gain in the United States. When the money is used to pay the kidnappers, the family is financially devastated and left in debt. Sometimes families need to borrow even more money to meet the demands of the kidnappers.
Once the money has been received, the victims are usually set free. In many cases, the Zetas make special arrangements with the family to use their networks to cross the migrant into the United States after the ransom is paid. Nevertheless, trickery is common and these promises aren’t always fulfilled. In other cases, victims are simply left in the street. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to pay, and executions are also practiced.
The Zetas are able to exercise their choices of victims because they have “people” in many different places. They have infiltrated the migrant shelters to scope out victims. They spend time at the train tracks where migrants gather before traveling northwards on the cargo trains. For example, volunteers at the Casa del Migrante in Arriaga, where the cargo train begins its route, have observed men in military-style clothing recording with a video camera at the train tracks.