Gunmen Abduct 31 Migrants in Mexico as Border Crisis Simmers

The 911 call came from a driver on a busy stretch of road near Mexico’s border with the United States: Gunmen in balaclavas had just abducted 31 migrants from the bus he was driving.

Pointing to an intensifying kidnapping crisis in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, the authorities are tracing mobile phone signals and deploying search-and-rescue dogs in an effort to find the migrants, who were taken over the weekend. They came from Venezuela, Honduras, Ecuador and Colombia, as well as Mexico.

The episode underscores how the current spike in migration to the United States is transforming parts of northern Mexico into a minefield for asylum seekers and migrants from around the world.

Tens of thousands of people have made their way to the border region, where they are encouraged to use a U.S. Customs and Border Protection app to present themselves at a legal border crossing to enter the United States.

But while the migrants bide their time, cartels are seizing on kidnap-for-ransom opportunities.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico said on Wednesday that the authorities had managed to reduce kidnappings nationwide, but he acknowledged that groups abducting migrants were especially active in Tamaulipas and other states, including San Luis Potosí, Nuevo León and Coahuila.

Mexico’s security secretary, Rosa Icela Rodríguez, said on Wednesday that the latest case in Tamaulipas had also raised attention given the number of people targeted. “This type of event occurred with one, two, three migrants,” Ms. Rodríguez said, “but this number in this area is atypical.”

The mass abduction in Tamaulipas on Saturday night is one of the largest such cases since last May, when nearly 50 migrants, including 11 children, were kidnapped from a bus in the central state of San Luis Potosí. Officials mobilized 650 police and army troops to search for the migrants, all of whom were found in an area where another mass kidnapping occurred a month earlier.

In Tamaulipas, the abduction of migrants is becoming a reliable revenue stream for criminal groups active in the border region, including the Gulf Cartel and the Northeast Cartel.

Jorge Cuéllar, the security spokesman for the state of Tamaulipas, confirmed in a telephone interview that another bus, which was traveling to Matamoros, was attacked Monday in a separate incident. Five of its passengers, all Venezuelans who were being held in a white car, were later rescued by National Guard officers.

The abductions unfolded even as Mexican authorities sought to bolster security along the border in late December, when families on both sides of the border typically gather to celebrate the holidays.

Mr. López Obrador told reporters that specific details about the investigation into the abduction of the 31 migrants were being withheld because “a certain secrecy is required.”

Colombia’s president, Gustavo Petro, said that four of the abducted migrants were Colombian citizens, and that Colombia’s embassy in Mexico was working with Mexican authorities to obtain their release.

Organizations focusing on the migration crisis at the border said the case reflected pitfalls with the shifting U.S. policies toward migrants.

“Organized crime has been able to use migration as a business precisely because so many migrants and asylum seekers don’t have an available legal path,” said Stephanie Brewer, the Mexico director at the Washington Office on Latin America.

The result, she said, was that migrants and asylum seekers make the trek north on their own or pay an organized crime group for passage across the border. But just as migrant smuggling has become a lucrative business, migrant kidnapping has as well.

“So they’ll kidnap migrants either because those migrants were trying to travel with or pay a rival group, perhaps the migrants had not paid any group for passage or it’s simply an economic proposition so their family members can be extorted for profit,” Ms. Brewer said. “And that’s a model that’s been going on for many years.”

After a pandemic-era border rule led to the expulsion of many migrants from the United States to Mexico, the advocacy group Human Rights First tracked at least 13,480 reports of kidnapping, murder, torture, rape and other violent attacks on migrants and asylum seekers.

Although the rule, known as Title 42, ended last year, migration policies that keep people in limbo in northern Mexico have made them easy prey for organized crime groups, added Ms. Brewer, who recently traveled to the Arizona-Mexico border, where she found dozens of people waiting to secure appointments with border officials.

“This example of mass kidnapping should be a clarion call for the end of policies that bottleneck thousands of people on the Mexican side of the border,” she said, “or that force them into the hands of organized criminal groups to seek a pathway into the United States.”

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