Cartels Make Crossing U.S. Border Even Riskier The trip across the border has always been perilous, but some Mexican drug gangs are now earning millions each year by extorting and smuggling migrants. Despite the increased danger from the cartels, one 15-year-old who was deported after reaching the U.S. says he'll soon try again.
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Brutal Cartels Make Crossing U.S. Border Even Riskier

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Brutal Cartels Make Crossing U.S. Border Even Riskier

Brutal Cartels Make Crossing U.S. Border Even Riskier

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

NPR's Jason Beaubien takes us to the border city of Matamoros, just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Twenty-four-year-old Juan Perez and his girlfriend arrived in Matamoros a couple of days ago from the southern Mexican State of Tabasco. They've run out of money and now find themselves stuck at the border.

JUAN PEREZ: (Through Translator) There are a lot of criminals at the river. You have to pay to cross the river. And on the other side, you have to be careful of the Border Patrol. And there's a lot of crime here in Matamoros right now.

BEAUBIEN: The couple is staying at a church-run shelter. They've heard about other migrants getting kidnapped, robbed and beaten here. They don't have the bus fare to return to Tabasco, but Perez worries he'll get abducted if he goes out to try to find a job.

PEREZ: (Through Translator) The truth is I'm afraid to go out in the streets.

BEAUBIEN: Perez says they wanted to go to the U.S. to look for work. Now they just want to go home.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH BELLS)

BEAUBIEN: Migrants are abducted and held in so-called safe houses until family members pay ransoms of hundreds or even thousands of dollars for their release. The migrants are regularly beaten.

FRANCISCO GALLARDO LOPEZ: (Through Translator) In the past, ordinary smugglers abandoned them, extorted them. But now, physical abuse is the norm, and it's very strong and very serious.

BEAUBIEN: Carlos paid a coyote, a smuggler, to get him from the Mexican border city of Reynosa to Houston.

CARLOS: (Through Translator) They charged us $500 up front just to cross the border. Then if they got us to Houston you have to pay another $2,500.

BEAUBIEN: The coyote took a group of 30 people, mostly young men in their 20's, Carlos says, and ferried them across the river in an inflatable raft. Two vehicles, a small white van and a car, were waiting for them. The migrants spent the first two days hidden in a house in McAllen, Texas. Then they were all crammed back into the vehicles, Carlos says, and driven out into the countryside.

CARLOS: (Through Translator) We were all squeezed in. You nearly suffocated in there, too.

BEAUBIEN: Outside McAllen, they were told they were supposed to meet up with some other guides who would walk them around several border patrol checkpoints.

CARLOS: (Through Translator) The coyotes who were supposed to take us weren't there. We woke up the next day and we didn't have water, we didn't have food. So what were we going to do there in the woods - die out there?

BEAUBIEN: Eventually the coyotes showed up. Carlos says the group would hike to a spot where the van and the car were waiting. They'd ride a little ways, then they'd get out and hike some more. Carlos says this went on for five days and the guides never brought them anything to eat.

CARLOS: (Through Translator) Mostly we were just drinking water. And then at one point, we went a day and half without any water.

BEAUBIEN: Carlos is from the central Mexican state of Morelos. His family works in the sugar fields. Carlos says all of his uncles are in Texas and he's always expected he'll join them. He'll go back to Morelos temporarily but says he's not going stay there.

CARLOS: (Through Translator) After a little while, I am going to go to the United States. I'm going to come back again.

BEAUBIEN: This burning desire to get to the United States is a huge problem, says Alejandro del Angel Pena Jara. Pena is with the Mexican social service agency in Matamoros that deals with deported minors. He says kids are putting their lives at risk to try to get across. One of the biggest dangers is just drowning in the river. But Pena says recently the migrant journey overall has gotten much more hazardous.

ALEJANDRO DEL ANGEL PENA JARA: (Through Translator) We've had cases where young girls, teenagers, are raped; cases where migrants are injured when they're attacked either with firearms or a knife. There's the problem of them being used to smuggle drugs across or money.

BEAUBIEN: But Pena says the most common cases are kids between the age of 12 and 16 who are trying to join their parents who are already in the United States. This poses a problem for him, because oftentimes he has to call that parent who's in the U.S. illegally and have them come down to Matamoros and collect their teenager.

DEL ANGEL PENA JARA: (Through Translator) We believe that they're then going to try to cross again. If you have your house, your family, your studies, everything over there in the United States, the most logical thing is that you're going to try to cross back. And what worries us is they're going expose themselves again to these dangers or risk their lives to return to the United States.

BEAUBIEN: Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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