No Safe Place

Mexicans flee organized crime but find little sanctuary.


Listen to Melissa del Bosque speak with KUT’s Jennifer Stayton about this story.

“SOMEBODY’S TAKEN CARLOS.” Ana couldn’t quite believe what her cousin had just told her over the phone. How could it be true? Ana had been preparing her three young children for bed. The maid was cleaning up in the kitchen. A place was still set for Carlos, her husband, at the dinner table. He hadn’t arrived home yet, but that wasn’t unusual. He often worked late at his factory. She stared at Carlos’ untouched place setting. It couldn’t be true.

“They just called,” her cousin, Joaquin, said with more urgency. “Grab the kids, grab your clothes and come to Brownsville.”

Ana, 41, hung up the phone and tried to remain calm. She didn’t want to panic her children or the maid.

Her cell phone rang again. This time it was Carlos, his voice shaking. “I’ve been kidnapped, and they want $800,000.”

“Please tell me you’re okay,” Ana said.

“What money do you have right now?” he asked. Ana thought this was an odd question. Ana and Carlos had done well in Matamoros. But everything they had was invested in his business and the house. They had no more than $1,000 in their bank account. Carlos knew this better than she did. “You know I don’t have anything,” she said. “What do you want me to do?”

Suddenly, a man’s gruff voice came on the line. “We’re not playing games. We’re going to kill him if you don’t give us the money.” The line went dead.

Ana quickly packed their clothes and some valuables. That night she fled her home with her children. It was the beginning of the end of her family’s once-happy existence in Matamoros. Ana and Carlos were both business professionals (their names have been changed and certain personal details omitted at their request to protect their safety). They’d graduated from prestigious universities in Mexico and were well known in their community. They owned a beautiful home. They belonged to one of the best country clubs in Matamoros, where their children took swimming lessons. Ana’s close-knit family lived nearby, and all of their friends were there, too. Business wasn’t bad, despite the recession. Her husband’s maquiladora had recently contracted with a U.S. corporation.

That summer night two years ago, Ana crossed the international bridge with her children into neighboring Brownsville. And from there, her life began to unravel.

dovesnakeprintwithcreditFOR GENERATIONS
, poverty-stricken Mexicans have made the same journey across the border, seeking refuge. They’ve worked in farm fields, in factories, and on construction sites, helping to build the American Dream and feed their families back home. But this time-worn pattern is beginning to change. The number of Mexican immigrants crossing into the United States has dwindled to its lowest level in years. Last year, the number of migrants crossing the border was just one-fifth of what it was a decade ago, when an estimated 500,000 Mexicans crossed every year, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. The economic recession, smaller families, and better educational opportunities, as well as the increased danger of crossing the border and heightened U.S. security, have caused the decline.

So it seems paradoxical that an altogether different class of Mexicans is now furtively crossing the border, seeking refuge in the United States. A growing number of wealthy and middle-class Mexicans are fleeing rising violence and kidnappings perpetrated by criminal syndicates that have taken over swaths of Mexico.

Mexican drug cartels have long been powerful. But the violence began to spiral out of control after President Felipe Calderon launched a military offensive against the cartels in 2006. Instead of crushing the cartels, as Calderon pledged, the military campaign made them only more aggressive. In recent years, the cartels have diversified, branching out from drug smuggling into extortion, human trafficking, car theft and—most threatening of all for wealthy Mexicans—kidnapping.

The cartels—like Sicily’s La Cosa Nostra—began taking over local economies, charging fees for protection and killing elected officials. They have morphed from drug smugglers into organized criminal syndicates, combining ruthless violence with keen business sense. They even have their own lawyers.

“They have taken over with brute force many parts of the country,” says Alberto Islas, a Mexico City security consultant. He estimates that the federal government has lost control over more than 30 percent of its territory, where government officials no longer enforce taxation or the rule of law. The lost territories amounted to 10 percent of the country when Calderon took office in 2006, Islas says. In August, a former Mexican security minister told reporters that the government “has lost territorial control, and therefore governability” over at least 50 percent of the country. The increasingly bloody and intractable violence has resulted in an estimated 40,000 deaths and 10,000 forced disappearances since 2006.

Nowhere along the U.S.-Mexico border, is the crisis more serious—with the possible exception of Juarez—than in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, where Ana and her family lived. In 2010, the Gulf and Zeta cartels, former allies, went to war for control of valuable smuggling corridors along the Rio Grande. A gubernatorial candidate, mayors, and other elected officials have been killed or forced into exile. Organized crime kills anyone who doesn’t cooperate. Mass graves dot the countryside. In cities like Reynosa and Matamoros, the police work for the criminals. Armed convoys roam with impunity and collect “taxes” from every sector of the economy. Those who don’t pay are kidnapped or killed. Their businesses are torched.

But what makes Tamaulipas perhaps even more dangerous than Juarez (often called the most violent city in the world) is that the terror occurs under a cloak of secrecy. The local media was long ago silenced at gunpoint.

With little to stop them, kidnappers have become especially vicious in Tamaulipas and the neighboring state of Nuevo Leon, says Islas, the security consultant. “They ask for a million dollars and if you can’t pay it they take your ranch, your business,” he says. “It has become common practice.”

This was the bad luck that befell Ana and Carlos.

THE DAY AFTER the kidnapping, Ana woke up in Brownsville to the sound of her cell phone ringing. It was her husband. “Did you get the money?” he asked. She could tell he was close to tears.

“Did they hurt you?” she asked.

The gruff voice came on the line again. This time he referred to himself as “El Comandante” and said he was the leader of the group. “Where’s the money?”

“I have gold watches and a SUV,” she offered. In the background she could hear muffled screams; it sounded like men were beating her husband. The phone clicked. A few minutes later El Comandante called her back. “Bring the SUV and the watches,” he said.

Ana drove across the international bridge into Matamoros. She was trembling, but she had no choice. The meeting place was an H-E-B supermarket parking lot downtown. She had been instructed to leave the SUV running with the gold watches inside. It was a sunny, hot afternoon, and the parking lot was bustling with shoppers. She parked in the designated place. Right away she spotted them. “I saw a police truck and an SUV. They were dressed all in black,” she says. Some teens were messing around nearby. Ana worried they’d drive off in her SUV. She sat frozen in the front seat, unsure of what to do. Her phone rang. “Get out of the car, leave the keys and go into a shop,” a man instructed. She stepped into a McDonald’s and watched one of the men in black drive off in her car.

She left the parking lot, went to a family member’s nearby home in Matamoros, and waited for the next phone call. It came shortly. “Where’s the money?” It was a different man’s voice now. Her husband had been moved to another safe house and was being held by another group of men. The news made her stomach turn. “Please,” she said. “Let him go so we can sell everything. We’ll pay you, I swear.”

But the men didn’t let her husband go. Days passed. They called repeatedly, always with the same threat: “Pay or we’ll kill your husband.” Ana and her children lived in anxious limbo at her cousin’s home in Brownsville. After several more days, she received a call from the general manager at her husband’s factory in Matamoros. An armed convoy was there with trucks to haul away the factory’s computers, the heavy machinery—everything. “Is there anything you can do to stop them?” the manager pleaded. Ana hoped that her husband had struck a deal with his kidnappers for his release, trading his business for his life. “Let them take everything,” she said.

The kidnappers had taken their SUV, their gold watches, and now her husband’s business. Surely, they would let him go, Ana thought. But she was wrong.

border, signs of the recent exodus of Mexico’s business class are everywhere, from the exclusive gated communities inhabited by wealthy Mexicans in Mission to the rented apartments in McAllen and Brownsville where middle-class Mexicans—without enough money to secure U.S. visas—live in fear of both the criminals in Mexico and the U.S. government that wants to send them back. New businesses and restaurants have cropped up in strip malls and shopping centers with the bold, bright colors that Mexican establishments favor. The Mexican government doesn’t report how many people have left because of the violence, but U.S. mayors as far away as Houston and San Antonio have noticed the influx during the past four years. In San Antonio, Mayor Julian Castro estimated at least 50,000 Mexicans have relocated to his city, according to The Washington Post. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, based in Geneva, reported that at least 230,000 Mexicans have fled their homes, largely because of the violence, since 2007. Half of them came to the United States.

For wealthy and middle-class Mexicans, remaining in the United States legally is becoming more difficult. Many Mexicans are applying for an investor visa—known as an EB-5 visa—that requires an investment of $500,000. Those who can’t afford an investor visa have few options. They can apply for political asylum, but the U.S. government rarely grants Mexicans asylum.

As wealthy Mexicans seek safety north of the border, some Texas business owners see opportunity. In McAllen, Marco Ramirez and his business partner Efrain Arce say the exodus of the wealthy and educated is both a tragedy for Mexico and a boon for the United States.

Last year, Ramirez and Arce opened a regional EB-5 visa center, called USA Now, where Mexicans with $500,000 or more can invest in the Texas border region. If USA Now’s investors can prove to the U.S. government that their businesses have created 10 or more jobs for American citizens, they and their family members will be granted permanent visas. (They must also prove that their money came from legitimate sources.) After five years, they can apply for U.S. citizenship. The company currently has 200 families trying to obtain visas—90 percent of them from Mexico—with at least $100 million to invest in distressed properties and businesses in a seven-county area from Laredo to Corpus Christi. (Congress will consider renewing the EB-5 visa program next year.)

Sitting in their conference room in downtown McAllen, the businessmen say they’ve heard hundreds of stories from clients about kidnappings and extortions. “The stories are endless and it’s very sad,” Ramirez says. Like his clients, Ramirez also has roots in Mexico. A few years ago, his family built a small Catholic church in his mother’s hometown in the border state of Coahuila, but now he won’t let his mother visit her church anymore. Gunmen have taken over the town.

Despite the violence, Ramirez says, most of his company’s clients want to stay in Mexico because of their businesses and professions. It’s their children they are worried about. Ramirez cites a married couple he knows, friends and also clients, as an example. Both are successful surgeons in Mexico with major ownership positions in several hospitals. Last year, criminals tried to kidnap their son. So they were forced to make a difficult decision. They sent their son to San Antonio, where he lives alone and attends high school. “It was too much for his mother to handle,” Ramirez says. “She said, ‘I would rather have my heart broken and know that he’s OK living in another country than have him here with me every day and live in fear that something might happen to him.’”

In June, some wealthy businessmen and government officials flew Ramirez and Arce to Monterrey to talk about their investment visa program. They made the trip on a private jet and were transported by helicopter from the airport to the meeting place downtown. “We almost never touched the ground,” Arce says. During the meeting, some of the government officials had to excuse themselves. “Two of the governor’s bodyguards had just been kidnapped and killed,” Arce says.

The question on the mind of just about every one of Ramirez’s clients, he says, is “When can I go home?” Last year, Ramirez and Arce attended an investors’ seminar in Colombia, which gave them some perspective. Many crime experts compare the spiraling violence in Mexico with Colombia’s drug war in the 1980s, when drug kingpin Pablo Escobar assassinated political figures and terrorized the populace. “It took Colombia 10, 12 years to stabilize, and I think Mexico is going to be a lot like that,” he says.

Colombia may have “stabilized” after Escobar’s death in 1993, but drug trafficking and violence still plague the country. And 95 percent of the cocaine produced in Colombia flows to the United States, with Mexico its primary route of transit to the estimated $40 billion annual U.S. drug market. Mexico is cursed by both its proximity to that market and its almost 50-percent poverty rate. The wealthy seldom pay taxes and the poor rarely escape poverty, Ramirez says. With an estimated 10 million young people holding no hope for a job or an education, Ramirez wonders how Mexico will ever persuade the legions of youth now working for organized crime to put down their guns.

“What do you do with that young man now? They gave him a gun, money, and the rights to take any vehicle or girl he chooses. He owns ranches. How do you get him to stop?” he says. “There’s an old saying from the Mexican Revolution by Emiliano Zapata,” Ramirez tells me. “‘I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.’ I think Mexico is going through a crisis like that now.”

The criminal networks that require a cut from every sector of the economy in Tamaulipas and other parts of Mexico have become complex enterprises. “I consider myself a sophisticated businessperson,” Ramirez says. “I have attorneys, accountants, managers, and if I were to give my team the responsibility to tax the city of McAllen, from banking institutions to gas stations to restaurants—that’s a big job. Who do we tax? How much? When did he pay us? When do we kidnap someone? The size of it is huge. I mean across the board: doctors, gas stations, taco stands. Everybody pays.”

But as Mexico’s security crisis deepens, the United States seems less willing to open its doors even to wealthy Mexicans. Jaime Diez, a Brownsville immigration attorney, says many of his clients are finding it harder to acquire or keep their investor visas. Increasingly, U.S. consular officials in Mexico are denying them. “There is no more traumatic experience for many of my clients than getting their visas renewed at the U.S. Consulate in Matamoros,” Diez says. “People can’t sleep the night before because they’re so worried their visas will be canceled.” As an example, he cites one client who lost his visa because his business went from making $1.5 million in sales to $900,000 during the recession. “They told him his business was no longer productive so they couldn’t renew his visa,” Diez says. Once the consular official cancels the visa, the decision can’t be appealed, nor does the U.S. official have to explain the reason for the cancellation.

“The people who come over here are really not at fault,” Diez says. “They are just victims of a war created by two countries that can’t seem to work together.” Increasingly, the only avenue left for Mexican citizens is to ask for political asylum, but that too often is denied, Diez says. Last year 3,231 Mexicans filed for asylum, but only 1.5 percent of applications were granted, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review.

Most are denied because the U.S. asylum law was created in the 1980s to protect people fleeing authoritarian regimes during the Cold War, not criminal syndicates. The phenomenon of organized crime devouring governmental institutions in Mexico is new and rapidly evolving. For the United States to grant asylum to Mexicans fleeing organized crime is tantamount to admitting that Mexico’s government can no longer protect its citizens—a serious blow to an already troubled partnership with Mexico.

THREE WEEKS HAD passed, and still Carlos’ captors hadn’t released him. Periodically Ana would receive phone calls. Always it was the same question: “Where’s our money?” It seemed that her husband was being moved frequently, every time with a different group of people. One day she received a call from a man she’d never spoken with before. “We need your husband’s accounts receivable invoices,” he said. She assumed the cartel planned to collect on the business’s outstanding debts.

Ana told him she had no idea where her husband kept such things. “We’re going to kill him then,” he said. The phone line went dead. Ana made some calls to her husband’s employees, frantically searching for the invoices. Finally, she found them. She hit redial. A man instructed her to bring the invoices to a shopping mall parking lot in Matamoros that night.

When she pulled into the parking lot, she saw a police truck and a convoy of five SUVs, mostly filled with armed teenagers. Shoppers went about their business as a boy not much older than 19 approached her car and demanded the invoices.

“When are you going to release my husband?” she pleaded. “When El Comandante gives us the order,” the boy said.

“Is my husband still alive?”

“Do you want to see him?” the boy smirked. He motioned to the SUV at the end of the convoy and it slowly rolled toward them. The window lowered. In the back was her husband, blindfolded and handcuffed.

Ana began to sob and begged the boy to release Carlos, but the teenager was unmoved. “Give us the money and we’ll let him go,” the boy said. The convoy drove away. Ana sat weeping in the parking lot.

She had given everything to Carlos’ captors but they still wanted $800,000 cash. Ana was losing hope. The next day, she received a phone call from Matamoros. It was a businessman who had been kidnapped by the same men and held in a safe house with Carlos. His family had paid his ransom, and he had been released. He told her several other men were being held with her husband. They’d made a pact with one another—if anyone got out alive, he would notify the other families and tell them that the men were still alive.

A few hours later, Carlos called. “Thank you for everything you’ve done. I love you,” he told her. “Take care of the kids. Please tell them I love them.” The phone line clicked.

Her husband was saying goodbye. Ana was devastated. She didn’t hear anything for two more days. She couldn’t sleep and all she did was cry. When Carlos’ captors called again, they wanted the deed to their house as collateral to raise the $800,000 before they released him. Ana wanted proof that he was still alive first. “I need to know that my husband is safe,” she said.

That night Ana met with another SUV filled with teenagers at a park. The driver lowered the backseat window so she could see her husband. Carlos was blindfolded and handcuffed, but he was alive. Ana felt a momentary sense of relief. She handed over the deed to their home, and the SUV drove away. Later, the kidnappers forced Carlos to sign the documents, and a lawyer notarized the transaction.

The next morning, Ana finally received good news. El Comandante had given the order to release Carlos. “Stay awake,” the caller advised, ominously. Ana could scarcely believe it. Hours passed but she heard nothing. Finally her cell phone rang, but it was an officer from the military base in Matamoros. Soldiers had encountered an armed convoy, and there was a gun battle. The gunmen carrying Carlos in their SUV had wrecked. He’d been found tied up in the wrecked car. The good news was he was still alive, the captain said. Could Ana confirm that he was her husband and vouch for his innocence? She rushed over to Matamoros to the military base. Carlos had some broken ribs and was badly beaten. The soldiers sent them to the local district attorney’s office to make a statement about his kidnapping. At the DA’s office Ana pleaded for protection for her family. An official there said he could do little. He advised that they leave Matamoros immediately. “Go to the United States,” he said.

That evening Ana and Carlos crossed the international bridge to Brownsville, where their kids were waiting. They entered the U.S. legally with visas allowing them to enter the country for the day, then return to Mexico. For the first time in their lives they didn’t go back.

That was nearly two years ago. The maid, the home and the business are all gone. All that’s left are a few cardboard boxes containing documents—what’s left of Carlos’ factory—and a framed painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which reminds Ana of home. “It’s the first thing I put up when we move to a new apartment,” she says. Mostly they survive on loans from family and friends. Ana and Carlos both have advanced degrees, but they can’t work in the United States because they’re not here legally. Sometimes they can’t pay their bills, so they move from apartment to apartment in Brownsville. Their former home is just across the Rio Grande, less than 10 miles away. “You can’t imagine how horrible it is to be so close and you can’t go back,” Ana says.

Before the kidnapping, Ana and her family might have been able to apply for a coveted investor’s visa. But after the kidnapping, they have no money and nowhere to go. Their last chance is to apply for political asylum, but an immigration attorney has already advised them that asylum will be very difficult to win.

So they, like thousands of other Mexicans fleeing the violence, face an impossible choice: stay illegally in the United States, or return to Mexico and risk death. Meanwhile, neither government will acknowledge that refugees like them exist.

For Ana and Carlos, life in exile is spent hoping and waiting for a miracle. Each morning, they sit at the computer in their small Brownsville apartment and search the Internet for jobs, which they can’t get because they don’t have U.S. visas. In a down economy, few employers are willing to spend the money or the time to secure work visas. Then they read the news coming out of Mexico about the executions, mass graves and kidnappings, and feel even more discouraged about ever going home.

“We were happy in Matamoros,” Ana says. “It was a good place to live and then suddenly everything changed.”