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Disappeared in the desert: Missing migrants feared dead in cartel feud

In late September, thirteen Mexican migrants went missing in the desert west of Ojinaga, where a witness said they were kidnapped by armed men. Now, officials fear the group may have been killed in a rising turf war between cartels vying for control of the human smuggling business. |  Lea esta nota en español

By Annie Rosenthal and Alfredo Corchado

This story is a collaboration with the Dallas Morning News.

OJINAGA, Mexico -- Thirteen migrants kidnapped here in Chihuahua may have been killed during a turf war between drug cartels –– part of an increasingly violent feud between rival gangs over smuggling routes in this northern state bordering Texas, according to Mexican and U.S. sources.

Some of the migrants were headed for the Midland-Odessa and Dallas areas, according to family members and a human rights advocate, who hold out hope that the group, all men mostly from the state of Chihuahua, may be alive and held for ransom or forced into labor for cartels.

But a Mexican security official close to the investigation told The Dallas Morning News and Marfa Public Radio that investigators are “looking for bodies, or pieces of them, of what’s been left behind” out in the desert. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, and added, “I can tell you, they’re not alive.”

The mass kidnapping, which happened in late September, is part of a growing pattern of disappearances of migrants in the area between Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, and the town of Ojinaga, across from the small Big Bend community of Presidio. That corridor had until recently been relatively quiet, but has a long history of cartel-related violence.

“It’s like no man’s land,” said Gabino Gómez Escárcega, a veteran human rights activist, who works with an organization called the Centro de Derechos Humanos de las Mujeres. 

Last week, Gómez stood with family members of the missing migrants outside the state attorney general’s office in Chihuahua to demand answers, holding posters emblazoned with their loved ones faces and signs with messages like:  “ It’s not just 13; they’re many more disappeared.” 

Among those gathered was Sheila Arias, whose nephew, Omar Reyes, a 20-year-old from Hidalgo who has vision problems, went missing at the beginning of November near the area where the 13 disappeared a month earlier.

“Something is happening in Chihuahua, something is happening on the border, and we can’t close our eyes,” she said.

Veteran security and immigration experts are concerned that the violence is, in part, spurred on by restrictive U.S. immigration policies that have left tens of thousands of migrants in limbo along the border, lingering in dangerous Mexican towns where they can easily fall prey to criminal groups. 

The Migrant Protection Protocols, commonly known as Remain in Mexico, require that asylum seekers who arrive in the U.S. turn around and wait in Mexico, often for months, for their U.S. immigration court dates. The Biden administration initially suspended the policy, which began in 2019 under President Trump, but reinstated it in early December following a court order. 

And under the Title 42 policy implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic emergency, hundreds of thousands more who arrive in the U.S. are quickly and routinely expelled back to Mexico. Many remain at the border seeking other opportunities to cross back into the U.S. 

Critics say under such policies, the U.S. is unwittingly creating a boom industry for smugglers. David Shirk, director of the Justice in Mexico program at the University of San Diego, said the policies “add to the number of people who are sufficiently desperate that they’re going to put their lives in the hands of a migrant smuggler.”

Smuggling is no longer a “mom and pop” operation, he said, but an increasingly lucrative industry in which cartels have become more intimately involved.

Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, sounded a similar alarm, saying, “Drug cartels used to look down on human smuggling because they saw it as a secondary business and a much less lucrative business. And obviously, the numbers are changing. And when the numbers change, it becomes much more attractive to try and control it.”

Jorge Contreras Fornelli, head of FICOSEC Juárez, a nonprofit clearinghouse of business and community leaders that promotes safety, estimates that in Chihuahua alone, human smuggling brings in nearly $30 million per month.

The takeover of human smuggling in Chihuahua by the cartels means “the consequence, as in the example of the 13 disappeared, is that we think they are no longer alive,” said Contreras, who is also a member of the national security council. “I hope we are wrong, but it has been a long time.”

Across the country, more than 95,000 people have been declared missing by Mexico’s National Search Commission. In late November, following a tour of Mexico to meet with officials and families of victims – including relatives of the 13 missing outside Ojinaga — members of the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances noted that migrants in Mexico are particularly vulnerable to disappearance.

Human Rights First has documented more than 7,000 violent attacks against people returned to Mexico or forced to wait there during the Trump and Biden presidencies under the Remain in Mexico policy. Many more are thought to go undocumented.

While families remain desperate for answers about what happened to relatives who went missing on the journey north, others have evidence of the brutality their loved ones encountered. In February of this year, several Mexican police officers were charged in the massacre of 19 migrants, mostly Guatemalans, in the state of Tamaulipas. The grisly event brought echoes of other brutal killings of migrants – including the murder of 72 migrants by the then Zetas cartel in the same state in 2010.

In Chihuahua, Gómez estimates that 30 Mexican migrants have disappeared in the desert between Ojinaga and Juárez in the last year and a half. Fifteen went missing within the span of just 40 days this fall – including the group of thirteen.

Violence isn’t new to the region where the migrants went missing. A splinter group of the Juárez Cartel, known as La Linea, and their rivals, the Sinaloa Cartel, once terrorized this remote region in the state of Chihuahua that extends between Coyame de Sotol and Ojinaga, and up the Rio Grande in what is known as the Valle de Guadalupe, outside Ciudad Juárez. 

During the 2008-2010 period, more than 10,000 people were killed just in Juárez, a result of a turf war over coveted drug smuggling routes. A death squad made up of soldiers operated out of Ojinaga, targeting rival cartel members, said Howard Campbell, a border anthropologist at the University of Texas at El Paso, who documented the violence in his book, “Drug War Zone.”

The general who led the military garrison in Ojinaga during those years, Manuel Moreno Aviña, was later sentenced to 52 years in prison for the torture, murder, and incineration of a civilian in Ojinaga.

Historically, Campbell said, the region around Ojinaga has been under the control of La Linea, “which has been the dominant group in the state with some exceptions.” And for the last decade, the area has been relatively quiet, a sign that La Linea was in control.

The Mexican security official described this “quiet period” as a “simulated peace, a purchased peace” adding that the cartel has a stranglehold over the city of an estimated 25,000.

Ojinaga Mayor Andres Ramos denies organized crime exists in his city, which he calls “a calm town.” 

The city has not taken kindly to the recent increase in migration through the area. Ramos said migrants “bring problems, big and small,” adding that the city receives “not one peso” from the federal government to care for them, and that local resources should be spent on locals.

But most of the men who disappeared in September were from communities surrounding Chihuahua City, less than three hours south of Ojinaga. The group of thirteen men left behind wives, parents, and children in Chihuahua. Some had decided to make the trip to reunite with family members in the U.S., while others sought jobs that would help them better support those back in Mexico.

Benigno Alvarez, 36, had worked as a delivery person in Chihuahua City. He quit his job over the summer when he heard from a cousin in Arlington who promised him a job in construction, installing sheetrock. 

His wife, Rocío Martinez de Alvarez, 33, was reluctant to let him go, insisting they could somehow make ends meet in Mexico. He responded that Mexican wages wouldn’t help them provide for his eldest daughter’s schooling, or pay for his other daughter’s quinceañera. He promised he’d return for Christmas and stay for the birthday party, planned for February, before leaving again. And he vowed in three years he’d return for good with enough money saved to even buy their own home.

“He had dreams,” said Martinez. “He was determined.” 

Her husband had faith he’d make it to North Texas, she said. He knew a local guide, a person who would navigate the complicated interactions with a smuggler and eventually members of organized crime.

Alvarez used a severance package to pay the 20,000 peso fee, a down payment charged by organized crime. He waited through months of delays, some because of summer’s monsoon season, before finally leaving Chihuahua City with the rest of the 13, a group organized by the guide, on the 24th of September. He would still owe more than $6,000 for the journey, to be paid after he’d started work in the U.S., his wife said.

On the evening of Saturday, September 25, Alvarez called Martinez from a safe house in the town of Coyame, just south of Ojinaga. He said that all was going as planned, and that they would lose phone service for the next stretch of the trip.

“He called me and told me, ‘We’re in Coyame, I’m going to turn off my phone and I won’t be able to talk to you til I get there,’” said Martinez.

The men were headed for Interstate 10, where a smuggler awaited them for transportation to the Permian Basin and Dallas. But first they had to go through Lomas de Arena, a tiny Mexican village right up against the Rio Grande, neighboring Hudspeth and Culberson counties in Far West Texas.

The U.S. side of the river here has seen a stark rise in both apprehensions of large groups and deaths in the desert of migrants from Central America, Ecuador and Mexico, said Culberson County Sheriff Oscar Carrillo. This year, his office has recovered 28 bodies from the desert, compared to what he said “had been the average for years: One.”

By Wednesday, a day after the group was supposed to arrive in North Texas, Martinez still hadn’t heard from Alvarez. Then she got a call from another family member in the group who said that a teenager who’d been traveling with the group had returned to Chihuahua. According to the state prosecutor’s office, the teen testified to local authorities that the group had been stopped by armed men who told him “vete” – go – before then taking the men away in vehicles. He said that he ran toward the U.S., where he was detained by Border Patrol and soon deported back to Juárez.

In early October, Martinez and relatives of other members of the group  filed formal missing persons reports with the state attorney general’s office. Martinez said officials collected DNA samples from each of them, and promised to begin searching. 

The state attorney general’s office is now offering a 200,000 peso reward for “useful and true information" about the whereabouts of the missing men.

But Martinez said they have not allowed family members to accompany them, citing the danger of the area.

Unwilling to watch from the sidelines, Martinez quit her job as a factory worker to commit herself fully to the search. She and a group of other wives, mothers, aunts and sisters of the missing men have taken to social media, posting photos of the missing men with messages asking people to send tips anonymously to their page, “ 13 desaparecidos Coyame-Chihuahua.”

“We beg you who has seen or knows something to help us find them, give us a clue about where we are so we can go search for them,” reads a typical post. “You can be those eyes, those ears, so that they can return home, where a child, a wife, parents are waiting for them.”

The families also requested assistance in the investigation from Maru Campos, the governor of Chihuahua, and Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The president drew their outrage when, during an early October press conference, he said he had not heard about the disappearance of the thirteen migrants. But during López Obrador’s recent visit to Chihuahua, the administration promised the group the use of a helicopter to assist with their search.

A spokesperson for the state attorney general’s office says it has carried out “permanent and uninterrupted” searches for them in recent months. Working with several other agencies – including the army and National Guard – the office says it has conducted land and air searches of the municipalities surrounding the area where the migrants disappeared. During those searches, they encountered 60 other migrants – but still have no answers about the missing 13 or Omar Reyes.

But officials on both sides of the border have privately spoken of a likely version of events: A confrontation between members of the Sinaloa and La Linea cartels the week that the 13 disappeared. According to the Mexican security official close to the investigation, the group had been taken hostage by members of the Sinaloa cartel, who planned to hold them for ransom. 

When members of La Linea realized that Sinaloa was encroaching on their territory and interfering with their human cargo, the official said, they brought dozens of trucks to Bosque Bonito, near Lomas de Arena, to “rescue” the migrants. The Sinaloa cartel had fewer people but more weapons, and La Linea retreated. At some point during or after the confrontation, the official believes the migrants were taken elsewhere and killed.

The official said houses around the small community of Bosque Bonito were abandoned, as though the few residents had left in a hurry. In one known stash house, the official said, investigators found bloody fingerprints and other evidence of torture.

The state attorney general’s office confirmed this week that investigators found traces of the conflict, including bullet casings and burned vehicles. Still, they said in a statement, “it cannot be established that [the group of thirteen migrants] was involved in any way, since there is no evidence to determine it.”

The state attorney general’s office also would not confirm whether investigators have used DNA testing on evidence from the site of the confrontation.

The Mexican official, however, was firm in the assertion that the migrants are no longer alive, and has a message for the families: “There are no words I can say to fill the void you feel for your sons, for your husbands, for your fathers. But there’s a divine law that can give you comfort.”

Contreras of FICOSEC agreed. “I think the important thing is that what we’re looking for here is not to have another San Fernando,” he said, referring to the 2010 and 2011 massacres of migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. Many say a lack of consequences for those killings has resulted in continued violence. “And to prevent us from having another San Fernando, we need to fight impunity.”

Martinez is not ready to conclude that her husband and his companions were killed. “My heart tells me he’s still alive, but I can’t blind myself to that possibility,” she said. “But if that’s the case, then where are they?”

Christmas Day will mark three months since the families last heard from their loved ones, and Martinez said each day is more difficult.

“Why shatter the dreams of so many families?” Martinez asked. “Because that’s what they were going for, a dream, and they destroy it in an instant.”

She said the search will not stop until the men are home. “We’re not looking for guilty parties,” she said. “We just want to know what happened, where they are. Where the person is that we’re waiting for at home.”

Annie Rosenthal is the border reporter for Marfa Public Radio and a Report for America corps member. Alfredo Corchado is the Mexico border correspondent for the Dallas Morning News.

Annie Rosenthal is Marfa Public Radio's Border Reporter and a Report for America corps member.