Taking the journey north to reunite with family in Memphis was like playing Russian roulette.
So was staying.
Twenty-seven year-old Ryan could remain in his native Honduras and risk being killed by gangs, like three other family members. Or he could run the 1,070 mile gauntlet to America teeming with violent predators, kidnappers and extortionists; a migrant trail that led to thousands of now well-publicized kidnappings and murders.
His mother in Memphis, an undocumented immigrant who declined to be named for this story fearing deportation, raised $7,000 to smuggle him to the United States. The smuggler assured her the one-time payment would cover extortion fees to the drug cartels who own the route or corrupt Mexican authorities and get him safely to the U.S.
But there are no guarantees on this path to freedom; Ryan said he was kidnapped hours before reaching the U.S.-Mexico border.
He wondered if he made the right choice as he sat naked inside a dark room covered in blood having just witnessed a scene similar to those in horror movies.
“I saw death,” he said. “ I told myself this is it. This is the end of my road.”
Ryan began his journey a few weeks earlier in Honduras where he hired a ‘coyote.’ He took several buses to El Ceibo, a town in the Guatemala-Mexico border. He crossed the border where a truck was waiting. The pickup drove him through the jungle, avoiding immigration points along the way. He joined other immigrants in Veracruz and continued the trip by bus, switching buses several times. The trip went smoothly until local police stopped the bus and asked for documentation. Ryan said he paid an extortion fee and felt safe.
He wasn’t even surprised when a group of men holding rifles stopped the bus in Tampico, close to Tamaulipas. The men asked to see every passenger’s ID. Since he didn’t have one, he was instructed to get off the bus. He figured he would have to pay another extortion fee then reboard but the bus left without him.
“They pointed the rifles at us and told us to get in the back of the truck,” he said in Spanish. “They put a black bag over my head. I didn’t know where I was going.”
He knew he had been kidnapped just like thousands of undocumented Central American immigrants enroute to the U.S. No one knows the exact number of victims but the National Commission for Human Rights, a quasi-independent government agency, documented more than 200 mass kidnappings resulting in 11,333 victims from April to September 2010.
When the Zetas Cartel broke off from the established Gulf Cartel, this new criminal organization needed money. An easy way to finance the war between other cartels was to kidnap migrants, experts say.
“When organized crime entered the immigration business things became much harder for migrants,” said Diego Lorente, director of the Fray Matias Human Rights Center in Tapachula, Mexico.
Lorente said despite the number of missing and rumors of migrants being kidnapped since 2007, authorities took no action.
“The massacre in Tamaulipas unveiled what no one in the country wanted to talk about,” he said.
He is referring to a massacre that made international headlines and offered a glimpse into just how much control the cartels have along the migrant trail.
A wounded migrant told the Mexican Marines about a mass grave in San Fernando. The migrant had managed to escape only because he pretended to be dead. The marines found a brutal scene: bodies of 58 men and 14 women, some pregnant. The migrants were executed by the Zetas Cartel in 2010 — killed for refusing to work with the cartel or pay ransom, according to Proceso, an independent investigative Mexican magazine.
A year later, the bodies of another 193 migrants were exhumed from a mass grave in San Fernando.
Ryan knew about the massacre. It was a major story in Central America for days. But it didn’t stop him from wanting to leave his country.
“The crime here is really bad. We have to work to pay the war taxes,” he said, adding that two gangs, MS-13 and the 18th Street gang, are fighting for territory and forcing young men like him to join.
Following the massacres, the Mexican government couldn’t deny that immigrants heading to the United States were being kidnapped in the country. Under international pressure, the Mexican government passed a new immigration law, which promised more protections to migrants.
“In Mexico, there is total impunity. The government gives out speeches touting they protect the rights of immigrants but that’s not true,” said Priest Heyman Vazquez, who runs a small migrant shelter in Huixtla, Chiapas. “No one cares about protecting immigrants here.”
The immigration law offered refugee status and humanitarian protection to migrants. The law also guarantees migrants access to health care and education. Migrants were granted judicial rights such as the right to due process. The law created a special prosecutor’s office to investigate crimes against migrants.
Priest Tomas Gonzalez says the law was a huge victory for human rights organizations, like the migrant shelter he runs, La 72 in Tenosique. But the new prosecutor’s office is not working.
“An immigrant will go and file a complaint and the notification to appear in front of a judge comes a year later,” Gonzalez said.
Inside the La 72 migrant shelter, there are dozens of migrants who’ve reported crimes; some delay their journey for days or weeks while others move on quickly. The Mexican government has no interest in investigating those crimes, he said.
For Gonzalez, being involved in protecting migrants is vital. He named the shelter he runs “La 72” or the “72” in honor of the migrants killed in the first massacre in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. Some killed there stayed in his shelter.
The prosecutor’s office in charge of crimes against migrants in Tenosique refused to be interviewed for this story.
“My bosses in Mexico City won’t let me talk,” the prosecutor said.
In Memphis, Ryan sits quietly remembering his painful journey. He says he feels detached from everything and everyone. He works long hours as a construction worker six days a week and on his only day off he visits his mother at work.
“I don’t talk about what happened to me. I just feel like I’m cold … distant,” he said.
Ryan said he remembers walking into a house when the men with guns took the black bag off. The men took his backpack, shoes and clothes. Once he was naked, the men beat him with a boat paddle. He was ordered to sit inside a room alongide dozens of other men stripped of their clothing, most immigrants headed to the U.S. to reunite with family.
According to Ruben Figueroa, a human-rights activist with Movimento Migrante de MesoAmerica, cartel members find as much as they can about the migrants traveling along the routes they control. If they have families in the U.S., they are held for ransom.
“I tell migrants never to share information about their families while they are in Mexico,” he said.
Ryan said nights were the worst in captivity. He would hear women and children crying.
“I wanted to do something. But I was sitting there naked and they had guns.”
One night, he said his captors brought two men into his small room. They turned on the lights, walked to the middle of the room and decapitated the men with machetes. Ryan and his horrified fellow captives were covered in blood.
Ryan said his captors cut the men into pieces, then ordered he and other migrants to clean up the blood and body parts.
“That image hunts me,” he said. “There are days I can’t sleep because when I close my eyes that image comes to mind.”
With each day, he wondered if he would survive.
“What if my mom can’t pay the ransom?” he wondered each night.
Food and water were scarce; white rice and a drink of water once a day. Ryan, tall and thin-framed, said he lost about 10 pounds and, with each day, hope.
By the sixth day of captivity, he was told he would be released. He was given clothes and blindfolded.
“I kept thinking, if my mom paid the ransom, they have no incentive in keeping me alive. I’m going to die.”
He was dropped off at a bus station to Reynosa, Tamaulipas. The men also gave him a “code” used to mark him as property of the cartel. Once in Reynosa, he was held in a warehouse for 23 days.
The men finally told him he had the “green light” to move north. That same night he crossed the border near McAllen then was transported to Houston where he was kept until the family paid another $2,300.
Ryan’s route to the U.S. border has the highest number of documented kidnappings. Ryan’s story couldn’t be verified independently but similar stories have been documented by human rights activist, journalist and government organizations. Two researchers from Human Rights Watch said they’ve heard similar stories to Ryan’s.
Human rights report shows that most of the kidnappings accounted for in the report happened mostly in five states, including Tabasco and Tamaulipas.
In the end, members of Ryans’s family raised $13,650 to pay smugglers and extortionists — money he now works six days a week to repay.
As he works off that debt he deals, too, with regular nightmares of what he witnessed on his path to the U.S.
“I can’t believe what happened to me in Mexico. Why do they do this to us?”
According to Priest Vazquez, who opened another migrant shelter in Huixtla Chiapas, the answer is simple: money and corruption.
“There are many migrants who can’t stay in their countries because they are threatened. This is their reality,” Vazquez said. “That’s a human tragedy. It starts with the country of origin, then the country of transit and the destination country. They are all responsible for this crisis.”