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According to the migrant support group Belén Posada Migrante, some 140,000 Central Americans—mainly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador—cross Mexico every year to reach the U.S. border. Pressed by appalling conditions at home, and lured by the dream of a steady job in the United States, the poor from across the Americas are somehow willing and able to pay coyotes up to $10,000 apiece to transport them from their home countries, through Mexico, to the U.S. border and beyond.
These migrants are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. Their resources are few and once they leave home they have no legal rights. Crossing Mexico, they are routinely held captive and extorted, not only by criminal gangs, but by unscrupulous public officials, private guards, transporters and even their own guides as they make their way northward. Sometimes, they simply disappear—not infrequently into enforced prostitution or perhaps into common graves.
This past Friday, Mexico’s Federal Police arrested a 22-year-old army deserter named Edgar Huerta Montiel, known to his friends as El Wache, on the charge that he coordinated last August’s massacre of 72 undocumented migrants—virtually all of them Central and South Americans—in the northern border state of Tamaulipas. Huerta Montiel is employed by the multi-tasking criminal organization (kidnapping, extortion, drug trafficking, people trafficking, murder for hire, etc.), Los Zetas.
On August 29, acting on a report by the massacre’s lone survivor, the Mexican Navy uncovered 72 bodies that had been tossed into a common grave in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. The victims were quickly identified as migrants making their way to the U.S. border. Forensics teams determined that they had been killed three or four days prior to the discovery. El Wache has allegedly confessed to the crime, telling police that he had supervised the hijacking of two tractor-trailers carrying the migrants to the border, and had personally killed ten of them.
Since then, 121 more bodies have been found in a number of common graves in the same area, bringing the known number of victims buried since last August in San Fernando to 193.
We don’t really know why the migrants are being killed, but there are a number of credible scenarios. The Ecuadoran survivor of last August’s massacre reportedly told police that the murdered migrants refused to be pressed into the Zetas’ drug trafficking business and were therefore killed (as an object lesson?). Another version holds that the Zetas suspected the migrants were already in the employ of a rival criminal gang, and therefore…? In other cases the motive is simple extortion: pay or die (or get sold into service of one sort or another).
The Mexican National Committee for Human Rights (CNDH) reports that on the average, some 600 migrants are kidnapped every month in Mexico. That works out to over 7,000 per year. Some estimates are considerably higher.
Not all of the kidnap victims are killed, of course. Some agree to do odd jobs for their captors—jobs that sometimes entail finding out which of their fellow migrants is able to raise a sizable ransom; some are sold into the sex trade; some manage to raise the cash demanded for their release.
Whether it’s in the form of cash-on-the-line or services rendered, the income flow created by all these extorted activities constitutes another form of “remittances,” the money sent “home” by expatriates—in this case, the money transferred from the poorest of the poor to the vilest of the vile. But it is a mistake to see this as simply a criminal problem. Knowing all the potential horrors that await them, the migrants still pay exorbitant fees to coyotes and continue to make their way northward. Beyond criminality, it is a telling commentary on the state of the American economies.