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Violence is also rampant in Mexico. The nation remains shaken by the murders of 72 migrants, gunned down this past week by what authorities say were drug cartel hit men. It was the worst mass killing in what was already an incredibly bloody battle against organized crime.

The migrants from Central and South America were trying to get through Mexico, in hopes of crossing illegally into the U.S. The massacre has terrified migrants and has been condemned throughout Latin America.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from the border city of Matamoros.

JASON BEAUBIEN: A week ago, 19-year-old William from Honduras was a hostage. He spent 15 days with his hands cuffed and his feet bound together. He was being held, he says, with a dozen other migrants in a house here in Matamoros.

WILLIAM: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: You had handcuffs on so you couldn't do anything, he says. All you could do is talk on the phone that they'd hold up to you. You couldn't defend yourself.

His captors would hold the phone so he could beg his family to pay his ransom. William says the captors went from one migrant to another, forcing them to give a phone number of a family member, preferably in the United States. If the relative who answered the phone didn't take them seriously, the kidnappers would beat the victim, so the screaming could be heard down the line.

They told William they'd kill him if his family didn't pay.

WILLIAM: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: In the house where we were, William says, at times there these two men who supposedly were police. They were well armed. They locked us up in a room and said they were in charge of us, to make us more afraid.

WILLIAM: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Eventually, several of his family members in the United States wired the captors $3,500. Thank God, he says, they paid them for my life.

William's fear for his life appears completely justified, after 72 other migrants were found this week gunned down at a ranch about an hour and a half south of here. The one survivor of that massacre said they were being held for ransom by the Zetas, one of Mexico's most powerful and most brutal drug cartels.

(Soundbite of a hymn)

BEAUBIEN: On Friday, here in Matamoros, Father Francisco Gallardo Lopez led a memorial mass for the slain migrants at the Our Lady of Lourdes Church. Father Gallardo called this week's massacre repugnant. In an interview, he said all the migrants who are being extorted and killed are our brothers. Yet, when they're passing through Mexico, they have no rights and no official protection. He says the mistreatment of migrants is out of control.

Father GALLARDO FRANCISCO LOPEZ (Pastor, Our Lady of Lourdes Church): (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: There are thousands of people, thousands of Central Americans, thousands of Mexicans, the priest says, who are kidnapped, mistreated and extorted.

Mexico's Human Rights Commission, in a report released last year, said that 20,000 migrants are kidnapped annually trying to cross Mexico. Another 60,000 are detained by the Mexican immigration authorities and deported. Hundreds of thousands more make it the United States and then try to get past the U.S. Border Patrol.

Father Gallardo says most of these migrants head north in an attempt to improve their economic lives, but he says the journey can make poor families even poorer.

Father GALLARDO: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: If a migrant has a small house or a plot of land in his home country, Father Gallardo says, when they're kidnapped the family sells everything for the ransom and they're left with nothing.

Father Gallardo runs a shelter for migrants in Matamoros. At the shelter, people are now terrified.

Mr. PAULINO RAMOS: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, I'm afraid, said Paulino Ramos from Hondurus, all of us Central Americans are afraid. If I go out in the street, they could grab me or kill me. We all have this fear.

Ramos traveled alone from Honduras here to the U.S. border. He says it's safer traveling alone. He's done the journey several times. He says he can blend in with the Mexicans and he's less of a target for corrupt officials and kidnappers.

Ramos is 54 years old. His son is working in Louisiana. His brothers are spread out from North Carolina to Virginia to Ohio.

Mr. RAMOS: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Ramos says the American dream is still alive in Central America. In our countries, the salaries are very low, he says. Going north is a chance to improve the lives of your kids and your family.

BEAUBIEN: He knows the downturn in the economy has made it harder to find work in the States but he says there's nothing for him right now in Honduras. But Ramos also declares that after this week's massacre of migrants here, this is his last trip across Mexico. If he makes it the U.S. he says he'll stay. If gets caught and deported back to Honduras, he's never going to come through Mexico again.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Matamoros.

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