He was almost to the U.S.-Mexico border after a dangerous trip. Then a gang stopped the bus

Carl Juste/cjuste@miamiherald.com

Elias was at home in Venezuela awaiting word from his 21-year-old son, Jose, who, after weeks of crossing Central America and traveling on foot through the dense jungle separating Panama and Colombia, had finally made it to the U.S.-Mexico border.

The phone finally rang on Tuesday, but it was not the call Elias was expecting.

His son had been kidnapped along with 14 other migrants as they traveled on a bus through Reynosa, a Mexican town across the border from McAllen, Texas.

If Elias wanted to see Jose again, the caller on the line said, he would need to send $1,000. Then the caller passed the phone to Jose.

“He said, ‘Dad, I need that money for them to free me because I have just been kidnapped,’” said Elias, who spoke to the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald but asked that neither his nor his son’s last name be used. “Before he could ask any questions, they grabbed the phone and warned that if they didn’t receive the money by the next day, the boy ‘will be taken to the bushes.’ “

Read more: Drug gangs, smugglers, corrupt cops: The ordeals Venezuelans face on the way to U.S. border

As migrants continue to make their way through Mexico in hopes of getting to the U.S. border and across, concern is growing among immigration advocates that they will be targeted by gangs. Just weeks before ending a pandemic-era public health order known as Title 42 and ushering in new asylum rules that allows the U.S. to return up to 30,000 migrants back to Mexico each month, the State Department issued a travel warning about the country.

Though aimed at spring breakers and U.S. citizens, the warning came after a string of kidnappings and high-profile violent crimes. One such incident involved the March kidnapping of four African Americans, two of whom were killed, in the northern Mexican town of Matamoros. The incident occurred not far from a migrant encampment, leading the Haitian Bridge Alliance to issue a statement warning Black asylum-seekers to be highly cautious.

“These cruel acts of violence show that whether you are seeking asylum or just U.S. citizens of African descent visiting the Matamoros area, there is no safe place for Black people at the U.S.-Mexico border,” Guerline Jozef, executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, said at the time.

But it’s not just Black people, other advocates say. Asylum-seeking migrants are routinely victims of extortion, kidnapping and murder by gangs, they say, and often the incidents go unreported due to fear of being deported..

Last week, just days before Jose’s kidnapping, 49 migrants from Brazil, Cuba, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras and Venezuela were kidnapped from a bus as they traveled through central Mexico. Mexico’s Defense Ministry, which confirmed the abductions, later reported that they had located many of the migrants in the central state of San Luis Potosi and the neighboring state of Nuevo Leon to the north following a search by members of the armed forces.

In the case of Jose, there was no armed search, underscoring how many incidents fail to attract media attention or that of Mexican officials. It also is a reminder of the dangers that U.S. bound migrants face as they attempt to get to the U.S. border, where the Department of Homeland Security this month rolled out tougher repercussions for those trying to cross illegally.

Jose, in a series of voice notes sent to the Herald, shared his ordeal. His abductors, he said, used a new Customs and Border Protection smartphone application, CBP One, that migrants are now required to use to request an asylum appointment at U.S. ports of entry, as their lure.

“We were in the bus and they got on and started to ask us for our documents,” he said. “They took us, telling us lies, saying we had to do the CBP One, which they will help us to process.... In the end they took us down by force and took us to a hotel and placed us inside a room.”

After about spending half an hour at the hotel, Jose and his fellow passengers were taken by cars to a house, where the windows and doors were barred shut.

“There was no water, there was no bathroom. We were held as if we were pigs. It was all really sad,” he said.

Inside the house were other hostages, including 10 women and eight children. They were Hondurans, Ecuadorians and one Nicaraguan, but most of the hostages were Venezuelans.

“There were people who had been there for two weeks, others had been there for months,” Jose said. “The one who was there the longest, had been there for four months.”

Some of the passengers were tortured by the kidnappers, he added.

“They also cut people right there. We had no water or food. They gave us a small piece of bread,” said Jose. “I thank God that I was able to get out of there because if we hadn’t paid, they would have killed me.”

Elias, his father, said it took him some time to raise the money to free his son and at one point, the kidnappers called again with threats.

“They were asking what had happened, where is the money? ‘We give you 15 minutes,’” Elias said.

By then, he had only been able to raise part of the money and asked for more time.

“I told them I would get the money somehow but that I didn’t want them to hurt my boy, to please spare his life,” he recalled. “Later we were able to gather the rest and wired the money via Western Union. We sent them four million [Colombian] pesos,” the equivalent of $900.

“Hours passed and they did not tell us anything. We kept waiting into the night without hearing from them,” Elias said. “We later found out in the early hours of Thursday that they had freed him by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Left him walking alone in the dark while starving, without money or food.”

Jose, his father said, told him that he was taken by a mysterious drug cartel, known as M2. Currently, Jose is back in Reynosa, where the local shelter is full and there is no way of getting help.