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Terrifying videos, threats: How kidnappers extort migrants' relatives for ransoms

"You know we don’t play," a criminal gang said in a video as they beat up a migrant man, a regular occurrence that has families desperately selling possessions to pay up.
David Sanabria and his daughter, Ximena, during their stay at the Iglesia Embajadores de Jesús shelter in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico in July 2021.
David Sanabria and his daughter, Ximena, during their stay at the Iglesia Embajadores de Jesús shelter in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, in July.Noticias Telemundo Investiga

Denis Sanabria hadn’t slept well for five days and felt that the emptiness in the pit of his stomach augured bad news. On that April day, he was working at his carpenter job in Nashville, Tennessee, with a saw in his hand, when the phone rang.

It was a telephone number from Mexico. 

On the other end of the line, some men told him that they were holding his brother, David, 32, as well as his 4-year-old niece, Ximena. If he wanted to see them alive again, he had to send the kidnappers $7,500 in the next eight days.

When Denis asked who was on the line, he was told he didn't get to ask questions — he just needed to get the money.

Denis said the call left him gasping. For a week he had lost communication with his brother, and the coyote (smuggler) who brought David and Ximena from Honduras didn’t answer his calls.

Denis Sanabria looks at the receipts for the payments he made to his brother David's kidnappers.
Denis Sanabria looks at the receipts for the payments he made to the kidnappers of his brother David.Noticias Telemundo Investiga

Two hours later, the phone rang again. It was David, begging him to do what he could to get the ransom money.

Noticias Telemundo Investiga interviewed 32 migrants kidnapped from 2019 to 2021 in Mexico and the U.S. Their relatives had to pay $1,500 to $5,000 as ransom to different cartels or criminal gangs for each of kidnapped migrants.

To get the money, family members sold their vehicles or other property, took their savings from the bank, went into debt with family and friends or went out trying to ask neighbors for money.

Denis had no more options to get more money for his brother and his niece. A month earlier, he had managed to sell a car and take out all his savings to pay their smuggler, or coyote, $8,000 to bring them north through Mexico to the U.S. border.

The family in Honduras had lost everything in two hurricanes, Eta and Iota, in November. The bean and corn crops the family subsisted on in their native Cortés had been destroyed.

After the hurricanes and amid Honduras' political turmoil, the exodus to the U.S. has increased dramatically, according to figures from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

David Sanabria and his daughter Ximena during his journey in Mexico in March 2021.
David Sanabria and his daughter, Ximena, during his journey in Mexico in March.Sanabria family

According to CBP figures, 40,091 Hondurans were detained last year trying to enter the U.S. without legal permission. So far this year, the Border Patrol has recorded 98,554 migrant apprehensions, more than double the previous year.  

David’s coyote was supposed to drop them off at the Texas border, where he was going to turn himself in, along with this daughter, to U.S. immigration authorities and seek asylum.

But when they reached Reynosa in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, the coyote handed them over to an armed group.

According to Denis, the coyote deceived them, because the fee he paid was supposed to include what was to be paid to criminals for going through their territory.

From crossing Mexico to becoming hostages

For a month on the road, David and his daughter slept in abandoned houses, on the edge of the train tracks and under trees. They ate what they were given in migrant shelters on their way to northern Mexico. Nothing resembled what the coyote had promised. 

When they arrived in Monterrey, in Nuevo León, they were put in the back of a truck with eight other migrants on their way to Reynosa.

At the city gates, the vehicle stopped on the orders of a group of armed men. They made all the migrants get out and inspected them one by one.

“They searched me. They took away the backpack I was carrying. They threw me facedown,” David said.

They were taken to a warehouse and asked for their cellphones and who were their U.S. relatives paying for the trip. Then they were kidnapped and told that if they wanted to be released, their relatives had to pay for the right to travel through the area.

“They told me they were the ones who commanded the border of the river and Reynosa, that they were from the Gulf cartel,” David said.

They were in a cellar for two days, and from there they were transferred to the desert. Green tents were set up under some bushes to camouflage the hostage camp. David estimated that there were 50 migrants, most of them Hondurans.

“They made us put up with hunger and thirst. They only fed us once a day. It was almost always rice, beans and a glass of water,” he said, adding that he would give his food to his daughter.

As the days passed, David’s health began to deteriorate. He had weakness, fatigue, headaches and symptoms of dehydration. Every time the kidnappers arrived with his cellphone, he knew it was time to call his brother to pressure him and ask him to pay.

Denis said he would explain to the kidnappers on the phone that he had no money. “But they did not accept anything. They told me that I had to wash cars, sell chewing gum, beg in the streets, but that the money had to be paid if I wanted to see them alive," he said.

‘They dismembered them with a machete’

Every time Denis said he had no money, David earned himself a beating. His daughter cried when she saw him bleeding on the floor.

David said that when the deadline arrived for other migrants and their families who hadn’t been able to pay the ransom, the captives were murdered right there in the camp.

“With a machete they dismembered them, killed them," David said, "and the only thing I could do was cover my daughter’s eyes and ears so that she would not know what was happening, nor would she have those memories for her whole life."

When that happened, David said, the corpses were cooked and the surviving migrants were served the human meat, “so that there would be no trace of anything — that’s what one had to eat.”

One of the things that most affected David was seeing the satanic rituals the kidnappers performed at night.

David Sanabria and his daughter Ximena in Honduras before beginning the journey towards the United States in Jan. 2021.
David Sanabria and his daughter, Ximena, in Honduras before beginning their journey to the U.S. in January.Sanabria family

"They knelt down. They had images of the devil, of Santa Muerte. They made pleas. They made offerings. It was something horrible,” he said. Several survivors who spoke to Noticias Telemundo Investiga talked about the kidnappers' cult of death.

David was ill and had already resigned himself to dying, but he was concerned that Ximena would remain alive and in the hands of criminals. That is why he asked them that if they were going to kill him they also kill his daughter.

“I was afraid that my daughter would grow up at their hands, so I was determined to lose my life, but with my daughter,” he said.

‘You know we don’t play’

While David and Ximena went through their hell, Denis was living through his own.

Denis had borrowed money from his co-workers, friends from an amateur soccer league in Nashville and relatives in North Carolina. In total he was able to raise $4,000. But when he spoke to the kidnappers, they insisted that he must pay the full fee if he wanted to see his family members alive.

That day the kidnappers called back and put his brother on the phone: “Brother, if you can’t do it, it's OK. Leave me here and they can tear me to pieces," David said. "If you can’t get the money, leave me here, and God will take charge of me."

Denis said it was like a goodbye. "He knew that I was exhausted here, that I didn’t have any money, because everything I had they had already taken."

Another family gets a threat, this time on video

Another migrant, identified as Daniel, left Honduras in February, heading north with 15 other relatives, crossing Guatemala and arriving in Tabasco, in southern Mexico. In the capital, Villahermosa, the coyote took them to a hostel, where they had to wait eight days to obtain Mexican humanitarian visas so they could continue traveling around the country.

On the third day at the hostel, the administrator told them that the coyote had left without paying her or the group that collects the fee for them to travel in the area. Two hours later, three vans with armed men arrived and took them to a warehouse, where there were at least 100 more migrants, according to Daniel’s calculations.

Daniel, who is afraid to show his face, lives in a Mexican city that borders the U.S. while he waits for his asylum petition, Aug. 2021.
Daniel, who is afraid to show his face, lives in a Mexican city that borders the U.S. while he waits for his asylum petition in August.Noticias Telemundo Investiga

There they were told that they had been kidnapped and that their relatives had to pay $25,000 to ransom the 15, including women and children. The men were taken to a separate room and beaten so videos could be recorded for relatives to see.

“I need you to send the money. It’s $25,000 for all of them. You already know that we don’t play,” according to a voice heard in one of the videos obtained by Noticias Telemundo Investiga.

“They started hitting us with the AR-15 [a semi-automatic rifle] on the head. They told us that if our families didn’t pay, they were going to kill us,” Daniel said.

As the kidnappers got ransom money, the conditions for the migrants improved. They gave them more food and turned on air conditioning.

“So you can see that they are well attended, as long as you deposit money today," the voice in the video said.

When the money stopped arriving on time, the kidnappers became desperate. “We've already separated the children from the parents. We don't want to take any more actions," they said. "We are going to start. Now we are going to start cutting little fingers. We need the money, now!”

Daniel kneeling with his cousins while his kidnappers record video to alert his relatives in Texas. Villahermosa, Tabasco. April 2021.
Daniel kneeling with his cousins in Villahermosa, Mexico, in April as his kidnappers record video to alert his relatives in Texas. Noticias Telemundo Investiga

Twenty days after he was kidnapped, Daniel escaped from as his captors were changing locations, and he traveled for a week to reach a city on the U.S. border. He requested asylum for humanitarian reasons and is waiting to hear from the authorities. He doesn't know what happened to his relatives who were still being held hostage.

Some of the captive migrants who were also freed opted to return immediately to Honduras. Others continued on their way to the U.S. 

Lack of political will to combat extortion

Daniel said a relative in Texas negotiated the $25,000 ransom for the group. The family member confirmed that he and other family members sold their cars in the U.S., as well as a farm in Honduras.

All transfers were made to women by the same methods used to send remittances to Mexico. Women look less suspicious because they usually receive remittances from their immigrant relatives in the U.S., the kidnappers told several of the kidnapped migrants' families, according to the accounts collected by Noticias Telemundo Investiga. 

Denis keeps the seven transfers he sent to his brother’s captors. It is a method criminals use to deceive the authorities and receive extortion money through the men. 

Daniel arrived alone to a border city after escaping from his kidnappers in Villahermosa, Tabasco in Aug. 2021.
Daniel arrived alone at a border city after escaping from his kidnappers in Villahermosa, Mexico, in August.Noticias Telemundo Investiga

George Mason University professor Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, who has spent decades studying human trafficking and related criminal activities, said there's a lack of political will between the U.S. and Mexico to combat extortion and the kidnapping of migrants.

“Many of these sums of money, both from human trafficking and from extortion and kidnapping, are laundered not only in Mexico, but also in the United States," Correa-Cabrera said.

Moreover, most of the money from extortions "is paid from the United States," she said.

Freed in Reynosa, deported to Tijuana

Denis lost his shame in asking for money on the streets of Nashville, and he prepared posters explaining his situation and that of his kidnapped brother. He put out several plastic cans to collect money, and in one week, he raised the $3,500 he needed to free his brother and his niece.

David and Ximena were released in April on the outskirts of Reynosa. The kidnappers left them on a dirt road and told David to walk in a straight line for half an hour until he found the Rio Grande. When he crossed it, he would be on U.S. territory.

“I was sick, depressed, beaten. I put my girl on my back. I told her to hold on tight to me, and that’s how we managed to swim across the river," David said.

Within five minutes of their having crossed, a Border Patrol van arrived, and they were processed and taken to an immigration detention center near the border. David pleaded with the officers to send them to Honduras if they were going to be deported, because he never wanted to return to Mexico.

They were detained for three days in one of the centers known as "hieleras," or iceboxes, because of the intense cold from the air conditioning. “My girl arrived with a covered chest. She had a lot of coughing, and she was all bitten by the insects of the desert, and that cold hurt her a lot,” he said.

On the third day of their detentions, without any explanation, David and his daughter were put on a plane and returned to Mexico, this time through Tijuana, Baja California. They were received by the staff of the National Migration Institute of Mexico, which placed them in one of the shelters in the border city.

David and Ximena eating in the Iglesia Embajadores de Jesús shelter in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico in July 2021.
David and Ximena eating in the Iglesia Embajadores de Jesús shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, in July.Noticias Telemundo Investiga

Under Title 42 to curb the spread of Covid-19, migrants who are detained at the border are returned to Mexico while their petitions for asylum are processed. 

As of this year, 100,000 migrants a month are returned to Mexico, according to CBP.

David was scared when he arrived in Tijuana, fearing they would be kidnapped again. But Pastor Gustavo Banda, who welcomed him to the shelter where 3,000 migrants are housed, assured him that there would be in no danger.

Antonio Carpio, Baja California's anti-kidnapping prosecutor, said there aren’t as many migrant kidnappings in his state compared to other northern Mexican border areas because “the criminal groups that operate there are not interested in that business.” They look for other ways to finance themselves, such as drug trafficking, he said. 

He said that migrants have been kidnapped in recent years in Tecate and Mexicali but that Tijuana is a safe place for foreigners who live in shelters and in camps like El Chaparral, where 1,500 migrants are housed.  

In May, the organization Al Otro Lado, which provides free legal assistance to migrants from Baja California, helped David fill out an asylum application. After many prayers, he said, what he longed for came to be.

In August, the U.S. granted David and Ximena humanitarian parole so they could enter the country and live with Denis in Tennessee while they await court dates in their asylum petitions.

Ximena eating in the Iglesia Embajadores de Jesús shelter in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico in July 2021.
Ximena in the shelter.Noticias Telemundo Investiga

“For a moment, we felt that everything was finished, that the goal we had was not going to be achieved, which was to be together here, but there is always a great God who can do anything,” Denis said with tears in his eyes at the airport in Nashville. He was able to hug his brother after six years.

“I want to tell migrants to be very careful, because those roads are made of thorns, they are roads of death, of evil shadows, because Mexico is not a safe country for us to cross,” David said.

David and Ximena are fortunate to be alive, and he hopes their new lives in the U.S. will make up for each day of the hunger, anguish, insomnia and terror they experienced on their way to the American dream.

Noticias Telemundo Investiga reporters Damià Bonmatí, Juan Cooper, Aldo Meza and Belisa Morillo investigated and produced this series of three reports. Albinson Linares and Caleb Olvera contributed to the investigation.

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

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