TIJUANA, Mexico — David, a 17-year-old Honduran teen who arrived here as part of a migrant caravan in November, was supposed to be in the U.S. by now. But on Dec. 15, he and two friends were kidnapped and tortured in this Mexican border city.
David, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, managed to escape. But his friends — two boys, 16 and 17, who had also fled Honduras — did not. Two days later they were found dead, dumped in an alley with stab wounds and signs of strangulation.
David returned “screaming and crying nonstop,” said Uriel Gonzalez, director of the Tijuana shelter where the boys were staying. “He let [my deputy] know they have killed the other two guys. That they slaughtered them in front of him.”
The boys are believed to be the first homicide victims among the estimated 6,000 people who joined so-called “migrant caravans” in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala and arrived in Tijuana in November. President Trump, without offering evidence, has described the caravans as an “invasion” of “hardened criminals” and tweeted that it was a “national emergency.” In October, he ordered more than 5,000 active-duty troops to the border, and in December proposed a policy requiring migrants to remain in Mexico while they await an asylum hearing.
But the boys’ murder underscores the danger migrants face as they wait in violent border cities for their asylum cases to be processed in the U.S. Tijuana has the highest homicide rate in Mexico, and every day there presents a risk, particularly for the estimated 200 or so minors who arrived there without parents or guardians.
For David, the situation is particularly tragic: He had been scheduled to be escorted to the Otay Mesa Port of Entry with a group of other unaccompanied minors by California Democratic members of Congress Nanette Barragán and Jimmy Gomez, who managed to get eight other migrant teens admitted to the U.S. to make their asylum claims. But now David is in protective custody in Mexico for his own safety.
“It made me angry because people are dying. And these are children,” Rep. Barragan told VICE News, adding she was “heartbroken” when she learned about the boys’ murder.
Preying on teens
Of the thousands of migrants being forced to wait for asylum hearings in Mexico, minors who made the journey alone are now among the most vulnerable people stuck in limbo in Tijuana. Minors were once allowed to apply immediately for asylum in the U.S. on humanitarian grounds. But lawyers in Tijuana say that changed after the caravans started arriving in November.
In San Diego, Customs and Border Protection has been turning away unaccompanied minors seeking asylum and telling them to add their names to a waiting list in Tijuana. But those minors can’t get on the waiting list unless they present government identification, which many do not have. And even if they do, adding their names to the list puts the kids at risk of being taken to juvenile detention by Mexican officials and deported to their home country.
“Organized crime knows they can’t fight back”
That leaves children traveling alone waiting indefinitely in Tijuana, where immigration lawyers say they are at greater risk of falling prey to criminal organizations, especially sexual slavery. The U.S. Government Accountability Office echoed this concern, saying unaccompanied minors are “vulnerable to sexual exploitation, human trafficking and other crimes.”
“Organized crime knows they can’t fight back, and they’re less likely to have the knowledge or resources to escape dangerous situations,” said Anna Joseph, an attorney with the Mexico City–based Institute for Women in Migration who has advised some of the kids. “They are just as useful if the aim is robbery, extortion or forced labor, with an easier time taking them because they’re weaker.”
Mexico recorded its highest murder rate in decades in 2017, and it appears 2018 was even worse. (Final numbers aren’t in yet in.) Cities and towns on the Mexican side of the U.S. border are especially dangerous. Tijuana saw a jump in homicides last year, with more than 2,300 people murdered, up from around 2,000 the year before, giving it the highest homicide rate in Mexico. That’s double the number of homicides in Tijuana since its last major wave of violence, in 2010.
But while the violence in 2010 was attributed to warring criminal organizations, it’s not clear-cut what’s driving the violence now, said David Shirk, director of the Justice in Mexico Project at the University of San Diego. “We are seeing a constant stream of bodies and blood in Tijuana. And it’s not as easily explained as a factional dispute between a couple of organizations,” he said, adding that migrants are “sitting ducks for organized crime to begin preying upon them.”
Lured with sex
For David and his friends, the horrific afternoon started innocuously. David left the youth shelter on Dec. 15 with two friends shortly after lunch, around 1:30 p.m. From there, they walked toward the municipal sports stadium, which served as the original shelter for migrants from the caravan, when they were approached by a woman with bleached-blonde hair and a star tattoo on her shoulder.
The woman asked if they had seen her dog, which she said was lost. Then she started to flirt and offered them drugs. They said they weren’t interested because they didn’t do drugs. And, they added, they didn’t have any money anyway.
The woman asked where they were from, and they told her Honduras. That’s when she started to get aggressive and said, “You guys are very handsome. I know a place where wealthy ladies in Tijuana will pay to have sex with you. So if you want to make some money, here’s your chance.”
Gonzalez said the boys walked with her about eight minutes away to an apartment complex in downtown Tijuana where rooms are rented on a short-term basis. When they got to the room, another woman arrived and started to make the boys feel “comfortable,” Gonzalez said. Then two men arrived and locked the boys in the room. The men started asking for ransom money, and the boys said it would be five or six hours before their families could deliver the money.
The men said that wasn’t “good timing” and started to torture the boys by strangling them. It’s unclear how David escaped, but when he arrived at the shelter, he had red welts encircling his neck. He said the kidnappers had tied wire around their necks.
The prosecutor’s office in Baja, California, said the other boys were found with stab wounds and signs of strangulation. Two men and a woman were arrested in connection with the case.
“Their blood is on the hands of CBP”
Child advocates blame Customs and Border Protection for stonewalling the entry of unaccompanied minors. “The fact that these children died was an avoidable tragedy,” Joseph said. “Their blood is on the hands of Customs and Border Protection.”
Customs and Border Protection did not respond to a request for comment about the boys’ murder.
Migrants trying to reach the U.S. have long been a target for kidnapping and extortion by criminal organizations because they are traveling alone and have no community ties. Criminals also assume the migrants have family members in the U.S. willing to pay a ransom. Those who can’t pay are killed with impunity.
Despite those dangers, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced a new policy on Dec. 20 requiring those applying for asylum from Mexico to remain in Mexico while their cases are decided — a process that routinely takes years. Nielsen said the goal of the policy is to dissuade migrants who make false asylum claims and then fail to appear for their immigration hearings. Mexico has broadly assented to the policy and agreed to provide humanitarian and work visas to the migrants while they wait out their asylum cases.
The policy doesn’t apply to unaccompanied minors, many of whom are unable to even start the asylum process. In San Diego, Customs and Border Protection has been turning away unaccompanied minors seeking asylum, which is why volunteer attorneys representing some accompanied minors asked Reps. Barragán and Gomez for help escorting minors to the border to make their claims.
Barragán said Customs and Border Protection officers told her the detention centers in the U.S. were full and they couldn’t accept any more asylum seekers. But she said the Border Patrol officers refused to let her enter the centers to independently verify and questioned whether it was true. Eventually, after hours of waiting and negotiating, the officers accepted the teenagers for processing.
David is still in protective policy custody, and Gonzalez said he will likely be released in two weeks. He expects the 17-year-old to seek asylum in the U.S. David has a family member in Texas who is willing to receive him.
Gonzalez described David as “exhausted” and “numb.”
“He hopes to have a normal life,” Gonzalez said. “He deserves a normal life.”
Cover: Central American migrants who traveled in caravan to the Mexico-US border, wait to be hired for the day by people needing workers, outside a temporary shelter in downtown Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, on December 17, 2018. (Photo: GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images)