REYNOSA, Mexico (Reuters) - Central Americans who fled violence for refuge in the United States risk kidnapping or death under a new U.S. plan to deport them to murderous and cartel-wracked Mexican border cities while their asylum cases are processed.
The city of Reynosa, and a nearby stretch of the Rio Grande that divides Texas from the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, is by far the busiest crossing point along the northern Mexican border for migrants seeking asylum in the United States.
But Reynosa is a wasteland of vandalized and abandoned homes in a state that is a key battlefield in Mexico’s bloody drug wars. With cartel factions fighting for lucrative drug trafficking routes, civilians are often caught in the crossfire.
On Tuesday, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump launched a plan to return Central American asylum-seekers to Mexico rather than have them wait in the United States - dubbed the Migration Protection Protocols. The first return of an asylum-seeker took place in Mexico’s west coast city of Tijuana, at the opposite end of the border from Reynosa.
U.S. authorities plan to gradually widen the program to other legal ports of entry, including Tamaulipas, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
“We’re returning them to where they came in,” said DHS spokeswoman Katie Waldman.
Last year, 32,521 people asked for asylum in the Rio Grande Valley sector that skirts the river in southern Texas, after being caught by border agents on river banks and in fields, or after walking up to ports of entry - more than half the cases for the entire 2000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.
Asked to comment on the risks of returning migrants to a country afflicted with disappearances and violent crime, Waldman said: “That’s no more dangerous than some of these violent parts of the United States, like Chicago.”
In 2017, FBI data indicates that Chicago, one of the most violent cities in the United States, had a homicide rate of about 24 murders per 100,000 residents, similar to the level in Tamaulipas cited by the interior ministry.
In Mexico, however, around 90 percent of crimes went unreported last year, the national statistics office estimated, while the data does not include unresolved disappearances, reckoned by Geovanni Barrios, president of Justicia Tamaulipas, at over 34,000 in Tamaulipas alone.
The border zone has become a central theater of conflict since the Mexican government launched a militarized effort against the cartels in 2006 and they began fragmenting. According to information from the defense ministry, 130 soldiers have since died in Tamaulipas, more than in any other Mexican state.
Now, splinter groups of the Gulf and Zeta drug cartels fight pitched battles for territory in armored vehicles emblazoned with their emblems. Hundreds of unidentified bodies lie in unmarked graves.
The U.S. State Department has a “Level 4: Do Not Travel” warning for five Mexican states including Tamaulipas, more frequently leveled in active war zones.
The project of securely hosting Central Americans while U.S. immigration judges adjudicate their cases seems a pipe dream, according to Reynosa’s mayor, Maki Ortiz.
“We don’t have the capacity. We don’t have the resources, the infrastructure or the budget for them,” Ortiz said, adding that no one had earmarked the extra funds for a city that barely has the means to combat its criminals.
Unlike recent caravans of migrants that headed for Tijuana, often several hundred people strong, most of those who journey to Reynosa make their way alone, or aided by clandestine people smugglers.
Dependent on those smugglers to guide them for a steep fee over the Rio Grande with the assent of cartel factions that control parts of the riverbank, they wait nervously in “safe houses” for their appointed crossing hour.
Or they ponder their options in the Senda de Vida shelter - the only one to accept Central Americans - in a district dominated by the Gulf cartel, who are blamed for multiple kidnappings and disappearances. Migrants at the shelter are warned not to venture out alone.
“I’ve never even seen the city since I arrived at the bus terminal,” said Maria Alfaro, 51, a Honduran cook staying in the shelter.
Too old to find work in a factory in Honduras, she came to Mexico hoping for job, she said. A Salvadoran she befriended in a migrant shelter in the southern Mexican town of Tapachula turned out to be a member of the Zeta cartel, she said - an assertion supported by a local press clipping seen by Reuters.
When she tried to escape him, he sent associates to kidnap her from a bus station and hauled her to a house where the gang members made her their sex slave, she said, her voice breaking.
Weeks later, she escaped. But she said she feared the gang’s criminal ties in Honduras would put her at risk of being hunted down if she went home.
So she went north, planning to ask for asylum in the United States.
“The United States takes better care of people, doesn’t it?” she said.
Keeping accurate figures for the Central Americans who go missing is difficult because migrants are in transit, often illegally, and anyone accompanying them is unlikely to notify authorities, said Barrios, of Justicia Tamaulipas.
Pastor Hector Silva, founder of Senda de Vida, said numerous Central Americans in his shelter had disappeared after venturing out against his advice, the most recent case a few weeks earlier.
Each time, Silva said, his visitors left their few possessions, as if they meant to return within minutes.
Sometimes families or friends found the missing migrants and paid a ransom before it was too late, he said.
In the shadow of the international bridge, with a U.S. flag fluttering just over the river, a cross carved with the words “Memoria Migrantes” stands as a bleak memorial to those who were never heard from again.
Reporting by Delphine Schrank, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien