MATAMOROS, Mexico — The men knelt on the floor side by side, heads down, hands behind their backs, while a man with his face covered waved a gun wildly in their faces. “Call her,” the man with the gun instructed one of them. “On speakerphone.”
“Listen, honey,” the man frantically said when his wife picked up, before the man with the gun snatched the phone away.
“I have your husband and his friend,” he snarled. “I want you to make a deposit for $4,000. I’ll send you the account number. If you don’t do it, I’ll kill him.”
VICE World News has obtained footage of this kidnapping, which shows two political asylum seekers from Cuba pleading for their lives as kidnappers in Mexico repeatedly threaten to kill them if their family members don’t pay a ransom. The video gives a rare look at the brutality of the migrant kidnapping crisis in Mexico, where thousands of people are victimized every year.
Migrants trying to reach the U.S. during the Trump administration were caught between asylum laws that kept them across the border for months or even years, and violence, impunity, and corruption in Mexico, making them sitting ducks for organized crime. President Joe Biden has reversed some of his predecessor’s most draconian policies, but criminals continue to prey on desperate people transiting Mexico as a source of illicit revenue.
The Cuban asylum seekers escaped their kidnapping alive. But the victim who’d called his wife gave up his dream of joining her in the U.S. and returned to Cuba; he couldn’t take any more brutality or suffering. The other, a lawyer in his 50s, was still waiting in Mexico more than a year later when he shared his story and the video of the kidnapping with VICE World News, which was originally sent to his friend’s wife as proof he was still alive. His identity is not being shared because of the risk of retaliation.
“I want to show the world what’s happening here in Mexico, the level of insecurity that’s here in these border zones that are so riddled with violence and kidnappings,” the man said. “It’s not that it will change, but it’s a start so people can begin to know the risk that migrants face when they ask for asylum in the U.S.”
In February, he was allowed into the U.S., after Biden reversed the Trump-era policy Migrant Protection Protocols, which required asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their immigration cases were decided. At least 1,200 asylum seekers under MPP have entered the U.S. over the last month. The Cuban lawyer called this reporter by video as he took his last steps on Mexican soil.
“Bye, bye! I finally made it!” he said, cheerfully waving goodbye from the Mexican border with a mix of joy and relief.
A week later, he arrived in Florida—a mere 110 miles, an hour and a half flight, from the country he had fled. He had traversed 11 countries over the course of two and a half years, defying hunger, kidnapping, and countless encounters with death, to get there.
The asylum seeker’s efforts to escape Cuba date back more than a decade, beginning when he was working as an attorney reviewing contracts. But Cuba was a “totalitarian” society, he said, with no opportunities to advance. In 2006, he tried to reach Florida by boat. At that time, the U.S.' “wet foot, dry foot” policy ensured that any Cuban who stepped foot in the U.S. could become a permanent resident. But the Cuban man was intercepted and sent back to the island.
“From then on, my life turned into a living hell for being against the government,” he said. “I couldn’t work. I was persecuted by the police.”
He tried to cross by boat twice more, each time getting caught. In September 2018, he hatched another escape plan. The “wet foot, dry foot policy” was no longer in effect—former President Barack Obama had cancelled it in 2017. Cubans, who had long been given preferential treatment, would be treated the same as everyone else.
So the Cuban lawyer sought to reach the U.S. by land. He flew south to Guyana because he could get in without a visa. From there, he planned to work his way north, following a well-tread smuggling route frequently used by migrants from Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and, increasingly, Cuba.
He said it was instantly clear that coyotes, or human smugglers, saw migrants as a dollar sign.
“From the moment I set foot in Guyana, I was treated like merchandise,” he said. “You lose your name. You lose everything. You become a number because you fall into the hands of human traffickers.”
The Cuban trekked west across the Brazilian rainforest into Peru, and then headed north, through Ecuador and Colombia. Then came the fearsome Darien Gap, the 66-mile break in the Pan-American Highway that otherwise stretches unbroken from Argentina to Alaska. It’s a no-man's land of dense rainforest, wild animals, paramilitary groups, and organized crime. It’s a living hell for the migrants who traverse it.
“I went through terrible times there. I can’t describe it with words. You must live it in your flesh to understand what it is,” he said.
One experience is seared in his memory: A Haitian woman lay on the jungle floor dying from thirst, begging the Cuban to give her water. But he couldn’t; he needed the water if he was going to survive. “Every time I close my eyes, it’s like I relive that moment. It’s lacerating to see a person die. The sense of guilt is overwhelming.”
When he finally reached Panama, immigration agents placed him in a camp with hundreds of others. He kept moving north, through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.
Everywhere he went, migrants were treated like a commodity. But no country was worse than Guatemala, he said, where police and armed forces preyed on migrants at every turn. “They follow behind every bus looking for migrants in order to extort you. We talked to them and sometimes agreed to pay $50 or $60, but their fee is $100.”
By the time he had crossed into Mexico, he had run out of money. He joined up with three Honduran migrants and jumped aboard La Bestia — The Beast — the infamous freight train that transports everything from sugar to cement, on which hundreds of thousands of migrants have illegally ridden north.
The train’s nickname comes from the risks of traveling on it; it’s a stomping ground for criminals and thousands have lost limbs jumping on and off the moving freight. The Cuban said he had to take that risk 10 different times as he got on and off to stop at shelters en route to northern Mexico.
In July 2019, 10 months after leaving Cuba, he arrived in the Mexican border city of Reynosa, across from Hidalgo, Texas.
There are two ways for migrants to enter the U.S. and ask for asylum: crossing at a port of entry and presenting their case to U.S. authorities, or crossing illegally into the U.S. and then requesting protection. The former is considered the “correct” way by U.S. officials. That’s what the Cuban wanted to do.
But instead of being allowed to cross, he was given a number and told to wait his turn—hundreds of others were in line before him. He lived in a migrant shelter, waiting for his number to be called. Three months later, on October 2, it was finally his turn.
The day started out as expected. He crossed the bridge into Texas, turned himself into U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and filled out paperwork. He received a hearing date in front of an immigration judge — January 11, 2020.
But at dawn the following day, U.S. immigration agents put him on a bus with other asylum seekers and drove them back to the Mexican border. They were sent to Matamoros, the Mexican border city that’s the home base of the Gulf Cartel. Mexican officials gave the Cuban documents that allowed him to temporarily stay in the country legally.
“To arrive in the land of liberty and see how they just expelled me — I felt like my world was falling apart,” he said.
He was one of more than 70,000 asylum seekers returned to some of Mexico’s most dangerous cities to wait for their immigration cases to be decided under the MPP program, also known as “Remain in Mexico.” While migrants trying to reach the U.S. have always served as a moneymaker for organized crime, kidnappings exploded under the policy.
Doctors Without Borders reported that in September 2019, 43 percent of its patients who were sent to the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo had been kidnapped. By October 2019, that number rose to 75 percent. The crimes are rarely reported and even more rarely investigated. Those who survive the experience almost never file reports with Mexican police, and for good reason: the fear that cops are involved.
Human Rights Watch found that of 71 Venezuelans the group interviewed between September and December 2020, nearly half said “Mexican police, immigration agents, or criminal groups targeted them for extortion,” according to a new report by the group. A quarter of those interviewed said “Mexican immigration agents or police officers had pulled them off buses or out of line at the airport and threatened to deport them if they did not pay a bribe.”
VICE News has spoken to nearly a dozen asylum seekers who were kidnapped in Mexico between 2019 and 2021. Their family members generally paid between $600 and $5,000 per person for their release. Even assuming conservative estimates, the Trump-era policy generated tens of millions of dollars for organized crime and corrupt officials.
When Trump left office, only 641 out of the more than 70,000 asylum seekers enrolled in the program had been granted asylum or another form of protection, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a research institute at Syracuse University.
The Cuban and his friend knew it was dangerous to move around, but they had to earn money. They each got a job at a factory welding machines from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. They were managing to get by.
Then came the police stop in October 2019.
They’d been on the job less than a month when men in a Mexican police car pulled them aside one evening as they left work and asked for their IDs. The Cuban’s friend didn’t have his, and the officers told the men they had to go to the station. But this was no ordinary police stop. As soon as they got into the car, the officers put a hood over the men’s heads.
“I’m not positive if they belonged to a cartel, or if they were actually policemen,” the Cuban said. “I thought I was going to die.”
He prayed to God and didn’t resist. The kidnappers brought the two Cubans inside a run-down house, forced them on their knees, and took the hoods off their heads. They were met with a gun and a man demanding $4,000 for their release. “You’ll have to call one of your families. Or I’ll do you in,” one of the kidnappers told the men in a voice that veered between menacing and bored.
The Cuban’s friend called his wife, who lives in the U.S. This is common: Kidnappers focus their extortion efforts on the victims’ family members and friends in the U.S., because they presumably have money to pay. The wife pleaded with the kidnapers, but they weren’t interested. Pay up, they insisted, or else.
As the wife scrambled to come up with the money, the men were terrorized. The kidnappers beat them, refused to let them sleep, and constantly threatened to kill them if their families didn’t pay.
Throughout the ordeal, they stayed in a dimly lit and “pathetic” room, the Cuban said. He and his friend were guarded by four kidnappers, all of whom kept their faces covered.
The men were released five days later, after the wife paid the ransom. With the money in hand, the kidnappers drove the Cubans to a supermarket at 5 a.m., and dropped them off.
“Throughout this long journey, there were various times when I could have died. But this was the most violent, where I really felt my life would end,” the Cuban said. “How could the United States send us—migrants without any knowledge of the area, without any resources—to wait for our asylum cases in these cities that are so dangerous?”
His friend decided to return to Cuba; he couldn’t stand to stay in Mexico any longer. But the lawyer persevered, ending up at a migrant encampment in Matamoros, living in a tent about a dozen feet from the Rio Grande river. His immigration hearing kept getting delayed because of the pandemic.
It would take another 15 months after his kidnapping for the U.S. to let him in. The moment was as easy as the journey had been hard. He was given a COVID test, walked across the bridge into the U.S., handed some documents, and sent on his way. He took a bus to Houston, and from there to Florida.
He wants to work at his family’s restaurant, or, perhaps, enter the news business, so he can tell other people’s stories.
“I fought, and fulfilled my goal,” he said.