CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico — The new job was going well at first. Roberto stocked up on a bunch of newspapers and started selling them in the center of town. He was trying to make some cash to buy food for himself and his family, who were staying in a shelter in Juárez while they pursued asylum in the U.S.
But the second day on the job, a group of men rolled up in a slow-moving car. “You’re not from here,” one said, hearing his Honduran accent.
“Stop fucking around,” they told him. “Why don’t you work with us – the Juárez Cartel. With us, you’ll make a lot of money. You could earn more selling drugs. Or if you want, you could be an assassin. Think about it.”
“The arrival of this many people in a daily manner can detonate an increase in criminal activity.”
Juárez was once one of the most dangerous cities in the world, a place where it was common to see beheaded corpses hanging from highway overpasses. The city sprang back to life in 2012 thanks to an aggressive clampdown by federal police and also, many suspect, because the Sinaloa drug cartel defeated its rivals.
But now, the city once again finds itself enveloped in a wave of violence. From 2017 to 2018, the number of homicides here tripled, rising to a level not seen in nearly a decade. In the middle of this new surge of violence is a crush of vulnerable migrants and deportees who city officials and experts say are at risk of being targeted as victims and recruits.
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“We are very worried,” said Enrique Valenzuela, director of the Chihuahua government’s population commission, which oversees migrant issues for the state. “The arrival of this many people in a daily manner can detonate an increase in criminal activity.”
Roberto deflected the men’s proposition. This was in April; his wife and two kids were at a nearby shelter, and the family would be staying there indefinitely. They had made it to the U.S. but were sent back to Mexico to wait while their case winds through the immigration courts — a process that will take several months at least.
Fear of retaliation
The next day, Roberto returned to the street to sell newspapers. The same men approached again, and this time he ran and hid in a nearby paint supply store. He didn’t see their offer to join the cartel as an invitation; he saw it as a threat.
“I’m scared they are going to see me again. And because I didn’t accept their offer, they are going to retaliate against me and my family,” he said.
All of the migrants in this story asked us not to use their last name because they are scared of retribution.
Juárez is facing a twofold crisis, with city officials desperately trying to combat the upswing in violence and at the same time provide for thousands of Cuban and Central American migrants stranded here as they seek asylum in the U.S. On top of that, the number of Mexicans deported from the U.S. to Juárez has nearly doubled over the past year.
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Valenzuela estimates there could be as many as 10,000 migrants and deported Mexicans in Juárez by the summer’s end — in a city with just 1,300 shelter beds.
“We are trying to cope locally with a situation that we did not cause. It was caused by federal immigration policies and an international phenomenon that we have no way of controlling,” he said.
Other border cities, such as Tijuana, are in a similar situation. Tijuana ranked as the most violent city in the world in 2018, according to a Mexican nonprofit, as it, too, has seen a resurgence in violence. But whereas Tijuana has a strong infrastructure in place to provide for thousands of migrants, Juárez was unprepared for the arrival of so many at once.
And as Central American and Cuban migrants become an increasingly common sight on the streets here, some longtime residents of Juárez are growing resentful.
“They are too demanding given they are in a country that’s not theirs,” said Jesus Guzmán, who works in a shop selling religious souvenirs. “When we go to the U.S., we ask to work. But the Hondurans want everything easy. They don’t want to work. They are causing problems, selling drugs.”
Guzmán began noticing the huge number of migrants in March. That’s when thousands of Cubans started arriving seeking asylum in the U.S., and also when the Trump administration’s crackdown on migrants began spilling over into Juarez on three different fronts.
There are now about 3,000 migrants on a months-long waitlist in Juárez to request asylum in the U.S. at a port of entry. The waitlist is growing by the day. Valenzuela said around 100 people are adding their name each day as they arrive in the city, while U.S. Customs and Border Protection is accepting between 30 and 40 people each day to pass into the U.S. to claim asylum.
The “remain in Mexico” fallout
Juárez is also experiencing an influx of Central American migrants who are seeking asylum in the U.S. but have been returned to Mexico to wait while their cases are decided — a process that’s likely to take around a year. The program, colloquially known as Remain in Mexico, took effect in Juárez in mid-March, and since then around 2,000 Central American asylum seekers have been sent back to Juárez.
Finally, Juárez is seeing a massive jump in the number of deported Mexicans, from roughly 1,300 a month in January to 2,200 a month in April. Part of the reason is U.S. immigration officials are trying to empty out detention centers as quickly as possible to make room for others. The U.S. also stopped its twice-weekly flights that took deportees directly to Mexico City — which had been part of an effort to avoid dumping them in dangerous border cities like Juárez.
All three groups are vulnerable as most have no family connections in Juárez, little if any money, and often no place to stay except at government or church-sponsored shelters. As those fill up, they face the prospect of living on the streets.
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“The potential of waiting for months without solid incomes puts people in a situation of being targeted for violence as well as forced recruitment,” said Jeremy Slack, a professor at the University of Texas-El Paso who studies migration and drug violence along the border.
Slack said the increase in violence in Juárez began in 2016 — before the wave of migrants and deportees in the city. He attributed it to local turf wars and a reorganization in the crime world, driven in part by the decline of the once-dominant Sinaloa cartel following the arrest of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. With Sinaloa less powerful, other cartels have emerged to challenge them for control of the drug trade. Civilians are often caught in the middle.
“Extra tinder” to the fire
And the arrival of so many migrants and deported Mexicans “adds an extra tinder to that fire,” Slack said.
He said deported Mexicans are at particularly high risk of being kidnapped, because the cartels believe they have family in the U.S. who can pay ransom money for their release. “But often what happens is there is one ransom, and then the next ransom, and then they can’t pay, and then there is this forced recruitment that happens.”
"What happens is there is one ransom, and then the next ransom, and then they can’t pay, and then there is this forced recruitment that happens.”
Migrants making their way through Mexico en route to the U.S. have also frequently found themselves in the crosshairs of criminal organizations.
Sandra, who fled Nicaragua with her 5-year-old son, said that in February they were kidnapped from their hotel in the Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo and held for several days by a criminal gang. The gang robbed her money and cell phone, but eventually released them without explanation. “I thought we were going to die,” she said.
In March, 19 migrants were kidnapped at gunpoint from a bus in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas while traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexican security forces said the kidnapping involved organized crime but didn’t elaborate. The migrants were rescued several weeks later from a home in Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, Texas.
Earlier this month, three Honduran men were killed earlier this month when gunmen stormed a home in Juárez. It’s unclear what their motive was.
And back in 2010, 72 men and women trying to reach the U.S. were kidnapped in Tamaulipas and shot to death. Mexican officials said the Zeta cartel killed them after they refused to join.
“What we have seen throughout Mexico is that when you have an increase in migrants in a certain area, you also see criminal groups follow. They are easy prey both for local criminal groups and organized criminal groups who recruit them, extort them or kidnap them,” said Maureen Meyer, director of the Mexico and Migrant Rights program at the Washington Office on Latin America, a D.C. think tank.
“The federal officials, including the president, wash their hands of the problem and say everything is under control.”
But Mexican leadership hasn’t openly pushed back against U.S. policies, creating a rift with local officials. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador describes the Remain in Mexico program, for example, as a unilateral decision on the part of the U.S. But Mexican immigration officials are working with the U.S. to accept the returned migrants while they wait out their asylum cases.
“The federal officials, including the president, wash their hands of the problem and say everything is under control,” said Rogelio Loya, director of social programs in Juárez. “It’s chaos.”
Even the shelters aren’t safe, migrants say.
One Honduran woman, Maria, said members of criminal organizations have entered the shelter where she was staying, pretending to be migrants. She said they stay no more than three days, and spend that time quietly approaching the people staying there.
One man told her he could cross her and her family into the U.S., promising it would be faster than waiting at the shelter. And she said her husband was offered money if he would cross into the U.S. with a bag of cocaine and give it to an associate on the U.S. side. They told him he would make “good money” and that afterwards they would take him to meet his family in the U.S.
Maria and her family had fled gang threats in Honduras; they didn’t want to do anything that would risk their chances of getting asylum in the U.S. But the situation in the shelter is difficult — they are living in cramped quarters with limited food — and she said other migrants appear to have followed the men.
“Their mission is to convince the men and women to leave with them.”
Cover: Central American migrants rest at the Paso del Norte international bridge in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in the border with the US, on October 30, 2018. (Photo by HERIKA MARTINEZ / AFP) (Photo credit should read HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP/Getty Images)