Reynaldo Hernandez lay on the cold floor of a bus station with his eyes open. The deportee from Illinois was in Matamoros, Mexico, more than 500 miles away from his home in the state of Guanajuato. He had no money to continue his journey. And after a nearly two-day bus trip from a detention center in Wisconsin to the U.S.-Mexican border, he was exhausted, but didn’t dare sleep.
Hernandez carried that burden until the next morning. The heavy-set immigrant stood outside the bus station, trying to figure out a way to get home before he got into trouble with one of the drug cartels operating in Matamoros.
“I don’t feel safe here,” said Hernandez, who was deported after living for seven years in downstate Bloomington. “I couldn’t sleep all night thinking about [members of the cartels]. I’m afraid of what can happen at night. They can kidnap me because they think I’m coming from up north and I have money with me.”
He wore a gray sweater and blue jeans. His hair was greasy, his face a bit dirty. He hadn’t showered in days. For protection, he stayed close to other deportees, like Eduardo Ruiz of Indiana. “It’s been 15 years since I’ve been back” to Mexico, said Ruiz, who was deported after he was arrested for driving under the influence. “No one in Mexico feels safe. There’s so much crime here.”
Together, Hernandez and Ruiz looked for ways to earn enough money to buy a $65 bus ticket. But a day’s work yields only a few dollars in this city. Without money or a viable way to get home, they were stuck.
In mid-March, The Chicago Reporter traveled to Matamoros and spent four days in the area to interview deportees like Hernandez and Ruiz at a bus station and an immigrant shelter. According to the Consulate General of Mexico in Chicago, Matamoros is among three border cities where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement drops off deportees from its Chicago “area of responsibility,” a region that includes six Midwest states.
In 2012, more than 62,000 deportations were made to Matamoros, a sevenfold increase from 2008, according to the Center of Migration Studies, a research department within the Mexican Secretary of the Interior that tracks migration in and out of Mexico. An additional 59,700 deportations were made to the other two cities, Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa, in 2012.
Immigrant advocates and researchers of the region’s violence say the three cities are rife with danger for deportees. Drug cartels fight each other for territory while the Mexican army tries to curb the violence without much success. Deportees become targets for theft, extortion and kidnapping. Some are even recruited to work for the cartels.
In 2012, Nuevo Laredo had 89.1 homicides per 100,000 residents, according to the Executive Office of the National System of Public Safety, a Mexican agency that compiles crime statistics. Matamoros and Reynosa had rates of 33.5 and 30.9 homicides per 100,000 residents, respectively.
By comparison, Mexico City’s rate was 16.9 homicides per 100,000 residents.
From 2011 to 2012, the three cities had a total of 49 recorded cases of kidnappings, while Mexico City had none.
Immigrants shouldn’t be deported to dangerous cities, said Angelica Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the Washington D.C.-based Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “The government should be taking into account security conditions when deporting people,” she said.
Deporting immigrants to a city where the government can’t protect them violates international law, said Grace Meng, a researcher in the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch, a New York City-based advocacy group.
“The international standard is very clear. The state has to have the ability to protect its people. This is a crucial issue,” Meng said. “There’s been many reports of people not trusting the government’s ability to protect them. How can we deport immigrants to those cities when law enforcement officials can’t keep them safe?”
U.S. officials choose every “port of entry” in consultation with the Mexican government, said Gail Montenegro, a public affairs officer for U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement, an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The agency “is committed to ensuring the safety and welfare of individuals who are being removed,” Montenegro said in a written statement.
The Mexican government, however, isn’t fully satisfied with the arrangement, said Mercedes del Carmen Guillen, Mexico’s assistant secretary of population, migration and religious issues. “The Mexican government has insisted on the need to revise the cities where people are deported,” Guillen said in a written statement. “We have to recognize that repatriated immigrants don’t receive [the] attention they need once they are deported.”
Peter Boogaard, deputy press secretary at homeland security, said the U.S. government arranged with Mexico to create a joint pilot program last year that sends limited numbers of deportees by air to Mexico City. It was made a “permanent initiative” on April 18. “This ongoing bilateral effort between both governments reflects our mutual commitment to strong and effective enforcement of both nations’ immigration laws and prioritizes the humane treatment of detainees throughout the removal process,” he said.
In the end, immigration officials only look at the bottom line when deporting immigrants, said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Brownsville.
“These people are just being dumped at the border because it is easier and cheaper for the government,” said Correa-Cabrera, who is writing a book about the Zetas drug cartel and violence in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. “The U.S. government is washing their hands off of this problem.”
An earlier version of an immigration reform bill that passed the U.S. Senate in June contained an amendment mandating that the immigration agency consider the rates of violent crime in picking deportation locations. But the provision didn’t make it into the final bill. “There were some concerns raised by some … senators, and it became clear it wasn’t going to pass,” explained Ian Koski, communications director for U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, the Delaware Democrat who sponsored the amendment.
But a portion of Coons’ amendment that survived still prohibits nighttime deportations. “These are truly dangerous situations,” Koski said. “We shouldn’t be punishing [deportees]. We are simply returning them.”
At press time, the U.S. House of Representatives was considering its version of the immigration reform bill. U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat whose 9th District includes Chicago’s north lakefront and northern suburbs, said she would support an amendment similar to Senator Coons’. Deportees “are very vulnerable, and it is hard to understand why they would be deported in the middle of the night to a dangerous place,” she said.
Schakowsky said the best way to deal with the issue is by sharply decreasing the number of deportations—by confining the operation to criminals. “It is really discouraging to see such high number of deportations,” she said.
* * *
The Brownsville and Matamoros Express Bridge connects the quiet, small city of Brownsville, Texas, to Matamoros. As you walk away from the bridge and into Mexico, the scenery quickly changes. Members of the Mexican military walk around holding assault rifles.
Welcome to Matamoros, a city torn apart by fighting between two cartels—the Zetas and the Matamoros-based Gulf Cartel. Correa-Cabrera explained that the Zetas used to work for the Gulf Cartel, until the relationship ruptured in 2010. In September, the capture of the Gulf Cartel’s leader, Capo Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, left a power vacuum and triggered more violence. The situation has kept residents in fear and immigrants in danger of being recruited or kidnapped, Correa-Cabrera said.
Despite the violence, the city is lively during the day. During the Reporter’s visit to the downtown area, dozens of people walked through the open-air market. The city’s economy depends on its neighbor to the north—the United States. Many of the residents work for one of the city’s 122 manufacturing plants, according to the City of Matamoros’ website.
In this city, one must follow unspoken rules to stay alive, residents told the Reporter. Don’t ask questions about the violence. Don’t use words used to identify the cartels—including the letter “Z,” which, in Spanish, is the name of one of the cartels. Don’t acknowledge newer-model sports utility vehicles and pickup trucks—typically driven by cartel members—on the streets. And one of the most important: Trust no one.
Correa-Cabrera said the city has no functional law enforcement authority. It doesn’t have a police department; it was dismantled by the federal government after rampant corruption was found. Hoping to curb the violence, the government sent in the military in June 2011. The soldiers can be seen around town walking or standing on top of blue trucks and holding assault rifles. Gun battles in Matamoros often erupt between the Zetas, Gulf Cartel and federal authorities, sometimes lasting several hours.
Crime data fail to show what’s really going on, as crime is severely underreported in Mexico, studies show. In fact, 78 percent of victims don’t report crimes to the proper authorities, according to “Victimization, Incidents and the Dark Numbers in Mexico” by the Citizens Institute for Studies on Insecurity, a Mexico City-based group that researches crime and security issues. The study was based on a March 2009 survey of 70,000 homes across Mexico, in both rural towns and urban areas.
A March 10 shootout in Reynosa is a prime example. Heavy gunfire paralyzed the city for hours. Associated Press reporter Christopher Sherman traveled there to write about it. He visited the morgue and several funeral homes. He reported that between 35 and 50 people were killed, but only two—a cab driver and an 8-year-old boy—were officially counted as victims.
The danger for immigrants has increased, as cartels target them for robbery and kidnapping, Correa-Cabrera said. The cartels hire “halcones”—or “hawks”—as informants. The hawks can be anyone: a cab driver, a government official, the guy selling tacos at the street food stand or even fellow “immigrants” trying to cross the border, she said.
Between 2010 and 2012, a team of Arizona researchers interviewed 1,113 recent deportees in cities along the U.S.-Mexico border—Tijuana, Nogales, Ciudad Juárez and Nuevo Laredo. They found that about 12 percent of the deportees were robbed, and another 7 percent were kidnapped by gangs, smugglers and cartels, according to the report, “In the Shadow of the Wall: Family Separation, Immigration Enforcement and Security,” produced by the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona.
Teresa Delgadillo Reséndiz is in charge of Migrant House, a temporary shelter for deportees in Matamoros. Migrants there have been beaten for several reasons, she said. For example, when deportees’ families wire them money to buy a bus ticket, the immigrants become prey for robbers.
Delgadillo’s shelter can house up to 200 immigrants for about three days, until they can find a way back to their hometowns. But the shelter can’t accommodate all of the people who are deported to Matamoros from the United States, she said.
“The other day, we had 230 people deported in one day,” Delgadillo said, adding that she’s noticed an upward trend in recent years.
Elsewhere in the state of Tamaulipas, dangers still abound. In 2010, the Mexican navy found a mass grave at a ranch in San Fernando, about 87 miles from Matamoros, the Houston Chronicle reported. Arturo Chávez, Mexico’s attorney general, said it contained the bodies of 72 immigrants from Mexico and Central America—people killed by the Zetas, the newspaper reported. And in April, the Mexican military found another mass grave at the same ranch. It contained more than 200 bodies of immigrants, according to the Chronicle.
The underreporting of crimes has made it nearly impossible to know how many people have been slain in this war. But most estimates by journalists are between 60,000 and 70,000 people, Correa-Cabrera said. It is difficult to document homicides, as the cartels often hide the bodies of those cut down by the violence, she added.
It shouldn’t have to be this dangerous for deportees when they are returned to Mexico, said Jeremy Slack, co-author of “In the Shadow of the Wall.”
“It’s a cruel way to deport people,” he said. Measures could be taken to enhance the safety of deportees without spending much additional money, he added, such as sending them to safer cities along the California border. “The difference in cost of sending them to Tijuana instead of Matamoros is minimal,” he said. “The security conditions at each city should be reviewed all the time. If you’re seeing massacres of immigrants on one side of the border, it is a safe bet that you shouldn’t send people to that place.”
Correa-Cabrera said a better alternative would be to drop off deportees in Mexico City, the country’s capital. “That’s because organized crime hasn’t really touched the city,” she said. “Also, the transportation system in Mexico City is much more effective, and immigrants would have a viable way to get home.”
That was the idea behind the creation of the bilateral effort that flies deportees to Mexico City. The program is equipped to handle two weekly flights, each transporting more than 100 deportees, Montenegro said. It costs the U.S. government about $500 per deportee, placing the estimated annual cost at more than $5 million. Still, the program has a limited impact; at its current pace, it would have covered an estimated 5 percent of immigrants deported to Mexico in fiscal year 2012.
* * *
Back at the bus station, on the Reporter’s second day in Matamoros, Hernandez and Ruiz were nowhere to be found. But there was another group of 30 or so deportees from places like Florida, Pennsylvania and Illinois.
Alejandro Mota, a deportee from west-suburban Mount Prospect, was among them. He stood outside drinking coffee and eating a piece of the bread that volunteers from a local church had brought for deportees.
Mota, who wore a grey sweater and pants, said he had been sleeping in the bus station for two nights. He had no clue how he long he would stay. When he finished eating, the only thing on his mind was to figure out a way to get back to his hometown of Acapulco. The problem, he said, was that he couldn’t reach family members. The $25 in his pocket was quickly disappearing.
When asked about the violence, he smiled and tried to dismiss the risks.
Back in Mount Prospect, Mota lived with his wife and son. But he was arrested after he got into a fight with his wife’s “lover,” he said. He was convicted on an assault charge and sentenced to three years in prison. After he completed his sentence, he was deported.
“I wanted to see my son before being deported. He’s 10 years old, and I hadn’t seen him” during the time he was in prison, Mota said. Now he stood outside the station, even farther away.
“I just want to find a way to communicate with my family. I don’t feel comfortable here,” he said. He planned on staying at the bus terminal for the time being. “We have nowhere else to go.”
He hadn’t left the station for two days. “It is dangerous out there,” he said. “None of the deportees know this city. We don’t trust this city.”
The only thing he had left was the hope that he’d make it out of the city alive.
Contributing: Deysi Cuevas and Leah Varjacques.
Support for this story was provided by the Fund for Investigative Journalism. An accompanying radio edition was produced in conjunction with Fronteras: The Changing America Desk, a public radio collaboration in the Southwest focusing on the border, immigration and changing demographics. The segment, produced by Mike Puente, can be streamed online.