“Somebody’s taken Carlos.” Ana couldn’t quite believe what her cousin had just told her over the phone. How could it be true? Ana had been preparing her three young children for bed. The maid was cleaning up in the kitchen. A place was still set for Carlos, her husband, at the dinner table. He hadn’t arrived home yet, but that wasn’t unusual. He often worked late at his factory. She stared at Carlos’ untouched place setting. It couldn’t be true.
“They just called,” her cousin said with more urgency. “Grab the kids and come to Brownsville.” Ana, 41, hung up and tried to remain calm. She didn’t want to panic the children.
Her cell phone rang again. This time it was Carlos, his voice shaking. “I’ve been kidnapped, and they want $800,000.”
“Please tell me you’re OK,” Ana said.
“What money do you have right now?” he asked. Ana and Carlos had done well in Matamoros, but everything they had was invested in his business and the house. They had no more than $1,000 in their bank account. “You know I don’t have anything,” she said. “What do you want me to do?”
Suddenly, a man’s gruff voice came on the line. “We’re not playing games. We’re going to kill him if you don’t give us the money.” The line went dead.
Ana quickly packed their clothes and some valuables, and that night she fled with her children. It was the beginning of the end of her family’s once-happy existence in Matamoros, Mexico. Ana and Carlos were both business professionals who had graduated from prestigious universities. They owned a beautiful home and belonged to one of the area’s best country clubs. Despite the recession, business wasn’t bad—Carlos’ maquiladora had recently contracted with a U.S. corporation.
That summer night, Ana crossed the international bridge with her children into neighboring Brownsville, Texas. And from there, her life unraveled.
For generations, poverty-stricken Mexicans have made the same journey across the border, seeking refuge. They’ve worked in farm fields, in factories, and on construction sites, helping to build the American Dream and feed their families back home. But this time-worn pattern is beginning to change. The number of Mexican immigrants crossing into the United States has dwindled considerably. Last year, it was just one-fifth of what it was a decade ago, when an estimated 500,000 Mexicans crossed every year, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. The economic recession, smaller families, and better educational opportunities, as well as heightened U.S. security, have caused the decline.
So it seems paradoxical that an altogether different class of Mexicans is now furtively crossing the border, seeking refuge in the United States. A growing number of wealthy and middle-class Mexicans are fleeing rising violence perpetrated by criminal syndicates that have taken over swaths of Mexico.
Mexican drug cartels have long been powerful. But the violence began to spiral out of control after President Felipe Calderon launched a military offensive against the cartels in 2006. Instead of crushing the cartels, as Calderon pledged, the military campaign made them more aggressive. In recent years, the cartels have diversified, branching out from drug smuggling into extortion, human trafficking, car theft, and—most threatening of all for wealthy Mexicans—kidnapping.
The cartels began taking over local economies, charging fees for protection, and killing elected officials. They have morphed into organized criminal syndicates, combining ruthless violence with keen business sense. They even have their own lawyers.
“They have taken over with brute force many parts of the country,” says Alberto Islas, a Mexico City security consultant. Last August a former Mexican security minister told reporters that the government “has lost territorial control, and therefore governability” over at least 50 percent of the country. The increasingly bloody and intractable violence has resulted in an estimated 40,000 deaths and 10,000 forced disappearances since 2006.
Nowhere along the U.S.-Mexico border is the crisis more serious—with the possible exception of Juarez—than in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, where Ana and her family lived. In 2010 the Gulf and Zeta cartels, former allies, went to war for control of valuable smuggling corridors along the Rio Grande. A gubernatorial candidate, mayors, and other elected officials have been killed or forced into exile. Mass graves dot the countryside. In cities like Reynosa and Matamoros, the police work for the criminals. Armed convoys roam with impunity and collect “taxes.” Those who don’t pay are kidnapped or killed. Their businesses are torched.
But what makes Tamaulipas perhaps even more dangerous than Juarez (often called the most violent city in the world) is that the terror occurs under a cloak of secrecy. The local media were long ago silenced at gunpoint.
With little to stop them, kidnappers have become vicious, says Islas. “They ask for a million dollars and if you can’t pay it they take your ranch, your business,” he says. “It has become common practice.”
This was the bad luck that befell Ana and Carlos.
The day after the kidnapping, Ana woke up in Brownsville to the sound of her cell phone ringing. It was her husband. “Did you get the money?” he asked. She could tell he was close to tears.
“Did they hurt you?” she asked.
The gruff voice came on the line again. This time he referred to himself as “El Comandante” and said he was the leader of the group. “Where’s the money?”
“I have gold watches and an SUV,” she offered. In the background she could hear muffled screams; it sounded like men were beating her husband. The phone clicked. A few minutes later El Comandante called her back. “Bring the SUV and the watches,” he said.
Ana drove across the international bridge into Matamoros. She was trembling, but she had no choice. The meeting place was a supermarket parking lot. She had been instructed to leave the SUV running with the gold watches inside. She parked in the designated spot, and right away she spotted them. “I saw a police truck and an SUV. They were dressed all in black,” she says. Ana sat frozen in the front seat, unsure of what to do. Her phone rang. “Get out of the car, leave the keys, and go into a shop,” a man instructed. She stepped into a McDonald’s and watched one of the men in black drive off in her car.
When she left the parking lot, Ana went to a relative’s nearby home and waited for the next call. It came shortly. “Where’s the money?” It was a different man’s voice now. Her husband had been moved to another safe house. “Please,” she said. “Let him go so we can sell everything. We’ll pay you, I swear.”
But the men didn’t let her husband go. Days passed. They called repeatedly, always with the same threat: “Pay or we’ll kill your husband.” Ana and her children lived in anxious limbo at her cousin’s home in Brownsville. After several more days, she received a call from the manager at her husband’s factory in Matamoros. An armed convoy was there with trucks to haul away the factory’s computers, heavy machinery—everything.
The kidnappers had taken their SUV, their gold watches, and now her husband’s business. Surely, they would let him go, Ana thought. But she was wrong.
Along the Texas border, signs of the recent exodus of Mexico’s business class are everywhere, from the exclusive gated communities inhabited by wealthy Mexicans in Mission to the rented apartments in McAllen and Brownsville where middle-class Mexicans live in fear of both the criminals in Mexico and the U.S. government that wants to send them back. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, based in Geneva, Switzerland, reported that at least 230,000 Mexicans have fled their homes, largely because of cartel violence, since 2007. Half of them came to the United States.
For wealthy and middle-class Mexicans, remaining in the United States legally is becoming more difficult. Many Mexicans are applying for an investor visa—known as an EB-5 visa—that requires an investment of $500,000.
In McAllen, Marco Ramirez and his partner Efrain Arce opened an EB-5 visa center, called USA Now, where Mexicans with $500,000 or more can invest in the Texas border region. If investors can prove that their businesses have created 10 or more jobs for American citizens, and that their money came from legitimate sources, they and their family members will be granted permanent visas. After five years, they can apply for U.S. citizenship. The company currently has 200 families trying to obtain visas—90 percent of them from Mexico.
As Mexico’s security crisis deepens, however, the United States seems less willing to open its doors even to wealthy Mexicans. Jaime Diez, a Brownsville immigration attorney, says many of his clients are finding it harder to acquire or keep their investor visas. “There is no more traumatic experience for many of my clients than getting their visas renewed at the U.S. Consulate in Matamoros,” Diez says. “People can’t sleep the night before because they’re so worried their visas will be canceled.” As an example, he cites one client who lost his visa because his business went from making $1.5 million in sales to $900,000 during the recession. “They told him his business was no longer productive so they couldn’t renew his visa,” Diez says.
Increasingly, the only avenue left for Mexican citizens is to ask for political asylum, but that too often is denied. In 2010 3,231 Mexicans filed for asylum, but only 1.5 percent of applications were granted, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review.
Most are denied because the U.S. asylum law was created in the 1980s to protect people fleeing authoritarian regimes during the Cold War, not criminal syndicates. For the United States to grant asylum to Mexicans fleeing organized crime is tantamount to admitting that Mexico’s government can no longer protect its citizens—a serious blow to an already troubled partnership with Mexico.
Three weeks had passed, and still Carlos’ captors hadn’t released him. Periodically Ana would receive phone calls. Always it was the same question: “Where’s our money?” One day she received a call from a man she’d never spoken with before. “We need your husband’s accounts receivable invoices,” he said. She assumed the cartel planned to collect on the business’s outstanding debts.
Ana told him she had no idea where her husband kept such things. “We’re going to kill him then,” he said, and hung up. Ana made some calls to her husband’s employees, frantically searching for the invoices. Finally, she found them. She hit redial. A man instructed her to bring the invoices to a shopping mall parking lot in Matamoros that night.
When she pulled into the parking lot, she saw a police truck and a convoy of five SUVs, mostly filled with armed teenagers. Shoppers went about their business as a boy not much older than 19 approached her car and demanded the invoices.
“When are you going to release my husband?” she pleaded. “When El Comandante gives us the order,” the boy said.
“Is my husband still alive?”
“Do you want to see him?” the boy smirked. He motioned to the SUV at the end of the convoy and it slowly rolled toward them. The window lowered. In the back was her husband, blindfolded and handcuffed.
Ana began to sob and begged the boy to release Carlos, but the teenager was unmoved. “Give us the money and we’ll let him go,” the boy said. The convoy drove away. Ana sat weeping in the parking lot.
She had given everything to Carlos’ captors but they still wanted $800,000 cash. Ana was losing hope. The next day, she received a phone call from Matamoros. It was a businessman who had been kidnapped by the same men and held in a safe house with Carlos. His family had paid his ransom, and he had been released. He told her several other men were being held with her husband. They’d made a pact with one another—if anyone got out, he would tell the other families that the men were still alive.
A few hours later, Carlos called. “Thank you for everything you’ve done. I love you,” he told her. “Take care of the kids. Please tell them I love them.” The phone line clicked.
Her husband was saying good-bye. Ana was devastated. She didn’t hear anything for two more days. When Carlos’ captors called again, they wanted the deed to their house as collateral to raise the $800,000 before they released him. Ana wanted proof that he was still alive first. “I need to know that my husband is safe,” she said.
That night Ana met with another SUV filled with teenagers at a park. The driver lowered the backseat window so she could see her husband. Carlos was blindfolded and handcuffed, but he was alive. Ana felt a momentary sense of relief. She handed over the deed to their home, and the SUV drove away. Later, the kidnappers forced Carlos to sign the documents, and a lawyer notarized the transaction.
The next morning, Ana finally received good news. El Comandante had given the order to release Carlos. “Stay awake,” the caller advised, ominously. Hours passed but she heard nothing. Finally her cell phone rang, but it was an officer from the military base in Matamoros. Soldiers had encountered an armed convoy, and there was a gun battle. The vehicle carrying Carlos had wrecked, and he’d been found tied up in the car, still alive. Ana rushed to the base to see Carlos. He had some broken ribs and was badly beaten. The soldiers sent them to the local district attorney’s office to make a statement about his kidnapping, and Ana pleaded for protection for her family. An official at the DA’s office said he could do little. He advised that they leave Matamoros immediately. “Go to the United States,” he said.
That evening Ana and Carlos crossed the international bridge to Brownsville, where their kids were waiting. They entered the United States legally with visas allowing them to visit for the day, then return to Mexico. For the first time in their lives they didn’t go back.
That was nearly three years ago. The maid, the house, and the business are all gone. They have only a few cardboard boxes containing documents—what’s left of Carlos’ factory—and a framed painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which reminds Ana of home. Mostly they survive on loans from family and friends. Ana and Carlos both have advanced degrees, but they can’t work in the United States because they’re not here legally. Sometimes they can’t pay their bills, so they move from apartment to apartment in Brownsville. Their former home is just across the Rio Grande, less than 10 miles away. “You can’t imagine how horrible it is to be so close and you can’t go back,” Ana says.
Before the kidnapping, Ana and her family might have been able to apply for a coveted investor’s visa. But after the kidnapping, they have no money and nowhere to go. Their last chance is to apply for political asylum, but an immigration attorney has already advised them that asylum will be very difficult to win.
So they, like thousands of other Mexicans fleeing the violence, face an impossible choice: stay illegally in the United States, or return to Mexico and risk death. Meanwhile, neither government will acknowledge that refugees like them exist.
For Ana and Carlos, life in exile is spent hoping and waiting for a miracle. Each morning, they sit at the computer in their small apartment and search for jobs, but in a down economy, few employers are willing to spend the money to secure work visas. Then they read the news coming out of Mexico about the executions, mass graves, and kidnappings, and feel even more discouraged about ever going home.
“We were happy in Matamoros,” Ana says. “It was a good place to live and then suddenly everything changed.”
Melissa del Bosque’s work has appeared in Time magazine and NACLA Report on the Americas. Excerpted from The Texas Observer (November 1, 2011), covering stories “in pursuit of a vision of Texas where education, justice, and material progress are available to all.”