IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Kidnapping, onerous fees: Central Americans returned to Mexico are targets for abuse, violence

They paid thousands to cross the border into the U.S. but were returned almost immediately to Mexico under a law enacted during the pandemic. With no money left, they wait and pray.
Yulissa Esquivel  lives in a makeshift camp in a central plaza in Reynosa, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, just a few feet from the border. 
Yulissa Esquivel  lives in a makeshift camp in a central plaza in Reynosa, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, just a few feet from the border. Damià Bonmatí

REYNOSA, Mexico — Thousands of migrants who have been returned by the United States to Reynosa, one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico, spend hours in tents and benches — their money gone and easy prey for human traffickers. 

The thousands of dollars they paid to travel to the U.S. border vanished upon arrival, several Central American women say, as they tell their stories amid the dust and heat in this Mexican town.

The women share something in common. After crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, the Biden administration returned them to Mexico in a matter of hours under Title 42, a measure implemented under former President Donald Trump, citing the need to block the spread of Covid-19.

Those returns continue to apply to single adults and most migrant families. In April alone, the U.S. carried out almost 112,000 expulsions, according to official data. 

Thousands of migrants have been returned to Reynosa, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, just a few feet from the border. 

Maribel, 47, among what local authorities estimate to be more than 400 migrants here, has already been a victim.

A makeshift camp in a central plaza in Reynosa, Mexico.Damià Bonmatí

"They threw us into the river with a ransom of $3,000"

Identified by only her first name to protect her identity, Maribel shares a tent in Reynosa's main square with her teenage son and 10 other people.

She left El Salvador to prevent her son from being recruited by criminal gangs. But her nightmare caught up with her at a hotel in Reynosa a few weeks ago. "We were kidnapped for five days. They took our phones and the money we had," she said.

They were locked up in a house in one of the city's more humble neighborhoods along with about 90 other migrants, all Central Americans.

Through the coyote who had helped them make the journey north, the kidnappers contacted her family in El Salvador and asked for a ransom of $3,000 in order to release them directly into the river that separates Mexico from the U.S. 

"They just threw us into the river for nothing, because there, boom, the (U.S.) immigration authorities sent us back. And here we stay," she said. She opens her arms to show that she is there, out in the open, in a crowded square, with what she carries with her, clothes donated by charitable organizations and little else.

"The money is already lost"

It's been over a week since the Border Patrol left Jennifer Castro and her 11-year-old daughter, who migrated from Honduras, on the international bridge to return to Mexico.

Despite the $8,000 she paid a smuggler to bring them to the U.S., she says she was told he can't help her cross again.

"I spoke to the man who was taking us and he said, 'No, I can't, I have to talk to your family first. I can't pick you up.' And I felt like I didn't know anyone here," Castro said.

She found some fellow Central Americans who told her they could share some of their tent space. Now four women live there with their four children. They get up at dawn to pray, get food from religious organizations, charge their cellphones for five Mexican pesos (25 cents) in a makeshift store, and pay $10 more to shower in a makeshift shower in the back of a taqueria.

On the roof of the tent, "Jesus Christ, the king of glory" is written in a marker.

Yulissa Esquivel, 31, who also left Honduras to try to reach the U.S., is one of the women who took Castro in. Yulissa paid $7,000 for her way north, but the money is like meaningless paper.

"The money is already lost. The 'pollero' (smuggler) who threw us into the river no longer answers. I spoke with him, my family spoke with him, but I had to pay $1,600 more for him to get me out of here. It's time to wait," she said, with an air of resignation.

Florida Alma, a 26-year-old Guatemalan, says her smuggler is no longer answering her calls. She paid $8,000 to get to the U.S. with her 8-year-old daughter. During her last conversation with her smuggler, who is in southern Mexico, he told her she had to wait.

"He says it will happen when they open the border, but who knows," she said.

In the camp, there are rumors about new policies and dates, mostly hopeful expectations. But all speculation falls short of the main message from the U.S. government: For most asylum-seekers, the border is and will remain closed.

The women repeat it to each other: They have to be patient, pray to their God and wait.

Journalists Jairo Gallego and Juan Anzaldúa, from Telemundo 40, collaborated in the reporting of this article.

An earlier version of this article was originally published in Noticias Telemundo.

Follow NBC Latino on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.