MATAMOROS, Mexico — Hours before his body was found washed ashore on the Rio Grande River along with his 23-month-old daughter, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez had arrived at the port of entry here hoping to present his case and gain asylum for his family in the U.S.
That’s when a stranger approached him and explained how things really worked here: wait months in Mexico for your number to be called, or pay a bribe to jump to the top of the list to legally enter the U.S. and apply for asylum. The price: $500 each for the adults, and $300 for their 23-month-old-girl.
“He told us if we paid we wouldn’t wait for very long,” said Milton, a friend who had attempted to cross the river with the family that day. “He told us that he could add us to the list — that he had his connections so we could enter the U.S. faster.”
“He told us if we paid we wouldn’t wait for very long”
But they didn’t have money, and did not want to wait in a region that the U.S. State Department ranks as dangerous as a war zone. So they decided to cross a narrow stretch of the Rio Grande River into the U.S. Hours later, Martínez and his daughter Valeria — wrapped inside his t-shirt so she wouldn’t be swept away — drowned in the river’s deceptively strong currents.
Their bodies, captured in a searing photo that has stoked outrage at home and abroad, were found face down on the banks of the river, Valeria’s arm draped around her dad’s neck.
Milton, who asked to withhold his last name because of public attention surrounding their deaths, told VICE News that the stranger’s extortion attempts that morning ultimately drove them to risk the river-crossing: “It was because of him that we decided to cross [the Rio Grande].”
The family’s extortion that morning, which has not been previously reported, shows how pervasive corruption on the border has become as dishonest Mexican officials and criminal enterprises exploit Trump's increasingly restrictive immigration policies.
Those who don’t have money to pay a bribe wait for months in dangerous border cities to cross legally, and many grow desperate and try their luck at the Rio Grande River before that time comes. Both options are dangerous, and both are made exponentially worse by the rampant corruption on the border.
“It’s like cancer: You get rid of the big tumor. But it keeps growing back,” said Juan Sierra Vargas, director of the Casa de Migrante shelter who also shared Tania Vanessa Ávalos’ account of the extortion in the hours before her husband and daughter’s death.
The corruption in Matamoros and nearby Reynosa exploded earlier this year, with immigration agents charging migrants up to $3,500 to add their names to the waitlist of asylum seekers trying to cross legally into the U.S. at ports of entry. The practice temporarily stopped in March after the Mexican Institute of Migration fired two officials identified as the ringleaders. But extortion returned with a vengeance, according to migrants, immigrant rights activists and lawyers in the area.
Asylum seekers may now able to add their name to the waitlist without paying, but those who pay are leapfrogged to the top, creating a tiered system where the poor are always at the bottom.
“It was a very brief stoppage of maybe about two weeks. And then it went right back to what we have always seen,” said Jodi Goodwin, an immigration attorney working along the border. “It’s very obvious that those who can get money and pay, they can cross. Those who don’t, they just languish.”
A spokeswoman for Mexico’s National Institute of Migration declined to comment for this story.
“The list doesn’t advance. That’s why one gets desperate. And with the kids – even more so,” said Beatriz, a five-month pregnant Cuban woman waiting outside the bridge that connects Matamoros to Brownsville, Texas. “That’s why one takes the decision to cross illegally into the U.S., even though it’s not right,” she said, as her one year-old son played at her feet.
She thought about trying to cross the Rio Grande River into the U.S., but decided against it after Martínez and Valeria’s death.
In Matamoros, dozens of migrant families like Beatriz are camped out outside the bridge separating the city from Brownsville. They are afraid to leave — they worry their number will be called and they will lose the chance to cross if they aren’t physically at the bridge.
One woman whose daughter has a brain tumor, was nervous to take a quick trip to the hospital for fear that their number would be called while they were gone. Like many here, she had been waiting two months for her number to be called.
“It’s very obvious that those who can get money and pay, they can cross. Those who don’t, they just languish.”
Several asylum seekers said they had thought about crossing the Rio Grande into the U.S., but decided it was too dangerous, especially because they can’t swim. Still, everyone knew someone who had gotten desperate enough and crossed the river. Migrants who enter the U.S. illegally can still pursue an asylum claim, although many migrants believe they will have a stronger shot at winning their case if they enter legally at a port of entry.
Either way, they are risking their lives. Matamoros and Reynosa are located in Tamaulipas, one of the most dangerous states in Mexico. That reputation has earned it a nickname: Matalipas, or the place where people get murdered.
Migrants are especially vulnerable. Criminal groups regularly target migrants for kidnapping and extortion to help bankroll their organizations. They also are linked to immigration agents, and many activists suspect they get a cut of the extortion fees.
“Those who denounce the corruption are disappeared,” said an immigration-rights activist in Matamoros who asked not to be identified because of death threats the activist has received for exposing the extortion in the asylum process. “If you go to the Human Rights Commission or the Federal Police to complain, they all have contact with organized crime.”
In March, López Obrador acknowledged the corruption among immigration agents at the U.S.-Mexico border. He pledged to clean the immigration agency of corruption and that there would be “no tolerance” for officials who extort migrants. “This practice may last a month, two months, but no more. They will be fired,” he said.
Since then, around 500 immigration agents around Mexico have been fired. But activists say firing them is a short-term solution to a systemic problem.
“If the Mexican government wants to diminish corruption it needs to prosecute immigration agents who are suspected of participating in smuggling schemes instead of firing them — placing corrupt people with smuggling experience in the pool of unemployed workers,” said Gretchen Kunher, director of the Institute for Women in Migration in Mexico City.
The situation for migrants in Matamoros and Reynosa, meanwhile, is perilous. Carlos, a Venezuelan man hiding out in a migrant shelter with his wife and three kids, says he’s living in terror as they wait their turn to apply for asylum.
He and his family fled Venezuela five years ago and moved to Northern Mexico, where they expected to stay. Then, in early January, his wife was assaulted on her way to the doctor’s office. She escaped with her baby, but the man grabbed items out of her purse, including one of Carlos’s IDs and a water bill. Soon after, Carlos began getting text messages on his phone demanding he pay “rent” just to live and work in the area.
“We don’t want foreigners here and we know you and your family aren’t Mexicans. So in order not to worry, you are going to have to pay us,” said one of the messages, which Carlos shared with VICE News.
The threats escalated. “I’ll come to your house [if you don’t pay]. Remember you have three little kids. Don’t make me take one away. So you better cooperate you son of a bitch.”
Another said: “If I find out that you that you went to the police I am going to fuck you up, you asshole. I hope you do, so I can go fuck you up in front of your house and family, you faggot. I will fuck your wife in front of you.”
In early June, Carlos and his family decided they had no choice but to seek asylum in the U.S. They added their name to the list of asylum seekers who want to cross at the port of entry. “But the list doesn’t move,” he said despairingly.
He doesn’t have the money to pay the bribe to jump to the top of the list, and he doesn’t want to cross the Rio Grande River because it’s too dangerous. But staying in Reynosa may be even worse — his family doesn’t leave the shelter for fear they will be kidnapped. “We are scared, and desperate,” he said.
Cover: A framed photo of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter Angie Valeria sits on an altar with flowers during a candlelight vigil in their name Sunday, Jun. 30, 2019 at Alice Hope Wilson Park in Brownsville, Texas. (Denise Cathey/ The Brownsville Herald via AP)