MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Acting on a citizen's tip, Mexican troops freed 165 migrants being held for ransom by gangsters in a town bordering South Texas, officials said Thursday.
The raid took place Tuesday in Diaz Ordaz, on the Rio Grande about 80 miles upriver from the Gulf of Mexico, liberating scores of United States-bound Central Americans as well as 14 Mexicans and one citizen of India.
At least 20 minors were among those taken into army custody, said Eduardo Sanchez, chief security spokesman for Mexico's federal government.
"They were held against their will while the presumed criminal group contacted their families with phone calls in which they demanded various amounts of money that were sent to the kidnappers," Sanchez said at a Thursday press conference.
That scenario has become all too common as US security measures have made illegal border crossing more difficult and migrants turn to smugglers increasingly working directly for crime syndicates or paying tribute to them.
While the migrants pay thousands of dollars to be smuggled into the United States, gangsters often renege on the deal and hold many for extra ransom from desperate relatives.
No recent official figures have been released, but Mexico's National Human Rights Commission reported more than 11,000 such kidnappings in a five-month period in 2010.
Gangsters often seize their victims near the train tracks, near the river or by bus stations in border towns, migrant advocates say.
Officials blame the brutal Zetas gang for the August 2010 massacre of 72 mostly Central American migrants on a farm about 90 miles south of the South Texas border. The migrants' smuggler had presumably not paid the gang for the right of passage.
The Zetas and their former paymasters in the so-called Gulf Cartel, both of which smuggle drugs and human beings, have been waging bloody war for control of that stretch of the border.
Troops in March freed 102 Hondurans held at house in the industrial city Nuevo Laredo, bordering Laredo, Texas, about 150 miles upriver form Diaz Ordaz.
Officials estimate some 140,000 non-Mexicans, most of them Central Americans but others from Asia and around the world, illegally pass through Mexico each year en route to the United States. Many of the Central Americans travel north by hopping freight trains and the Texas border is the closest point for illegal entry.
In addition to being held for ransom on the border, the migrants often suffer attacks and robberies along the journey through Mexico. Police said Central American gangsters, known as Maras, last week executed two Honduran women on the rails in southernmost Chiapas state for refusing to pay them extortion.
Not surprisingly, the Central Americans refer to the train, and the trek northward toward the United States, as “The Beast.”
Republican lawmakers are demanding even tighter US control of the border as a condition for approving the immigration reform bill being considered by Congress this summer.