LA PATRONA, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexican drug gangs branching out into new criminal activity are earning a steady stream of cash from the mass kidnapping of migrants, making the already arduous journey to the United States even more lethal.
The trek across Mexico has long been dangerous for the hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants, mostly Central Americans, who try their luck each year, risking robbery, death from fast-moving freight trains or dehydration in the desert.
But in the past couple of years, the feared Zetas cartel has raised the stakes for migrants and created another security headache for President Felipe Calderon's government, which has spent millions of dollars embroiled in a brutal drug war.
"I was kidnapped for three days," said 21-year-old Wilson from Honduras waiting in the shade to jump the next speeding train in La Patrona in the Gulf state of Veracruz, one of the most dangerous points on the more than 1,800 mile journey from southern Mexico to the U.S. border.
Known as "the beast," the massive cargo train is mounted by hundreds of illegal migrants every day who perilously cling to the sides and roof on the ride north, then risk capture by gangs who know they are unlikely to go to the police for help.
"It was dark, they pulled us off the train with automatic weapons and locked us in small rooms. They beat us and asked for the numbers of relatives (in the U.S.). Otherwise they said you had to work for (the gang) or they kill you," Wilson said.
Last August, 72 mostly Central American migrants were lined up and executed on an isolated ranch in the northern state of Tamaulipas, the main battleground between the Zetas and their erstwhile employers, the Gulf cartel.
One of the massacre's two survivors said the Zetas killed the group for refusing to join their ranks. Abducted migrants are often forced to transport drugs across the U.S. border.
Mexican police dug up 72 more bodies in mass graves last week in the same area but investigators are still determining if they are foreigners.
At least 11,333 migrants were kidnapped in Mexico between April and September last year, many in large groups, a study by the National Human Rights Commission showed. In 9 percent of cases, corrupt police or immigration officials were involved.
The Zetas are named time and again in the Commission's testimonies, which detail brutal beatings and multiple rapes.
A group of women volunteers in La Patrona who give donated food to migrants on the trains told of women who take birth control shots before leaving to avoid pregnancy if raped.
"There are victims who say they were held for over a month and they saw between 15 and 20 kidnapped migrants coming in and out of the safe house every day," said Fernando Batista, a Commission official. "It's a tragic business."
Tragic but lucrative, according to the Commission database, which showed extortion fees over the six months totaled more than a half million dollars -- ranging from $200 to $85,000 in more than 100 cases. The unreported figure may be much higher.
Originally a group of army deserters, the Zetas have morphed into a broad crime syndicate after splitting from the Gulf cartel, and are now fighting Mexico's other major drugs gangs for control of smuggling routes to the United States.
They make money not just from drug trafficking but oil theft, extortion and now kidnapping of migrants in bulk.
The gang's branching out into new criminal enterprises may be an unintended consequence of Calderon's four year-old army crackdown on cartels, which has fractured old criminal alliances and made drug smuggling more difficult.
The Zetas' ability to round up dozens of people and kill them en masse has tarnished Mexico's image as it competes for foreign investment with other emerging markets.
Salvador Beltran del Rio, the head of Mexico's National Migration Institute, told a United Nations committee this month the main threat to migrants is organized crime.
But while the U.N. committee praised some measures Mexico has taken to protect the 150,000 to 400,000 migrants that pass through the country each year, they still had major concerns about the "alarming" number of abductions.
"The committee was further concerned by reports that ... these human rights violations were carried out with the complicity or acquiescence and/or connivance of federal, state and municipal officials," the U.N. committee said.
Mexico's shortfalls safeguarding migrants in its territory complicates the government's push for better protection for Mexican nationals living and working in the United States.
Mexicans account for more than half the estimated 10.8 million illegal immigrants residing in the United States, and Central Americans make up about 10 percent.
Now that the U.S. economy is emerging from recession the flow of migrants looking for jobs is expected to increase again after a dip, despite the growing dangers along the route.
Migration from poor countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala is far from slowing, the governments say, giving a constant source of revenue to the gangs.
Stepping off a U.S. deportation flight back to Honduras, German Escalante said he would head back as soon as he could.
"I don't have a job here and even if I did, they pay you nothing. It's not enough to live," the 24-year-old said in Tegucigalpa where the minimum wage is around $7 a day.
"I have family up there and they are going to pay a smuggler," he said. "Last time I went, there were armed men on both sides of the border who said they were Zetas. Everyone knows who they are."
The women in La Patrona, who have been helping migrants for years, say job-seekers will continue risking their lives.
"They tell us, 'if I don't die on the way I'll die of hunger back home,'" 25-year-old volunteer Lourdes Romero said.
Additional reporting by Miguel Angel Gutierrez in Mexico City, Mike McDonald in Guatemala City, Nelson Renteria in San Salvador and Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa; Editing by Laura MacInnis