Kidnappers In Mexico Now Target Undocumented Migrants
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
People from Central America in countries like Guatemala and Honduras often make a desperate choice. They decide the crime and violence has gotten so bad at home, it is worth an incredibly dangerous journey to try and get to the United States. On that journey - harsh conditions - hot weather, lack of water and food, threats from drug cartels and the possibility of being kidnapped. Sarah Stillman writes about that danger in the current issue of the New Yorker.
SARAH STILLMAN: Well, there's an astonishing kidnapping market in Mexico for migrants who are making their way from Central America, sometimes further south, and who are trying to get to the U.S. and in the process are kidnapped often by drug cartels like the Zetas. And then they are basically often taken off the tops of trains that are riding north and then are taken to warehouses. And then their families are called. And they're told, you know, if you don't deliver $5,000, we will kill your family member, or you will never hear from them again.
GREENE: Stillman tells the story of two teenage boys, Bryan and Robinson Godoy. And here's the amazing thing - they survived the trip. They weren't kidnapped in Mexico. They were kidnapped in Texas. And that's becoming a growing problem.
STILLMAN: So in the case of these kids - Bryan and Robinson - two kids who were thriving for some time in Guatemala City in a private school. Their parents had gone to the U.S., to New Jersey, to basically try to make money to build their family a better life and then return home. But as things got more and more violent for the kids, they decided, actually, the best thing to do for their safety would be to bring them north to Trenton. And the kids had seen several people killed near their house. There was a lot of gang recruitment going on.
GREENE: And it strikes as these two kids were - I mean, they were doing as well as you possibly could in a private school and kind of with, you know, loving grandparents taking care of them. Like, if they were going to be sucked into the violence, I mean, it just shows you how troubling the situation is.
STILLMAN: Exactly. I mean, right now, you know, in some parts of the region - like, Honduras is actually considered the country with the highest murder rate in the world. So, you know, we hear so much about, you know, Iraq, Afghanistan - all of this stuff happening quite far away. But really close to home, we have this at our doorstep. So it's not terribly surprising that families would be willing to risk an incredibly dangerous route and to put their kids in the hands of smugglers who they paid to try to bring them north to Trenton.
GREENE: So these two boys, in the hands of smugglers hired by their family, managed to reach the U.S. border. They crossed the Rio Grande on a leaky raft that was deflating, but they made it into Texas. And that's when things went wrong.
STILLMAN: There were some rogue individuals who saw the kids by the side of the road when they were crossing. And they said, you know, get in our car. The kids, being naive teenagers who didn't really know what was going on, get in the car. They go to this house, and it turns out that these are individuals who are actually trying to extort their family for money.
GREENE: They were kidnappers. They held the boys at a house in Texas and called their parents in New Jersey to demand $5,000 in ransom.
STILLMAN: And the parents, you know - they're not wealthy people. And they found themselves in the situation where they genuinely didn't have the money to pay. They sent what they had, and then they started cobbling together money from their daughter who had a fast food job. They started cobbling together money from family and did everything they could to get as much as they could as quickly as they could. But at a certain point, they were really terrified that their kids were going to lose their lives. And they did what very few families do, which is they turned to the police.
GREENE: Which is a very difficult decision for families that worry about being deported - I mean, to make, to actually turn to the authorities. But this family did that.
STILLMAN: And I think it's to the credit of the Trenton Police Department. In many respects, the police there made it clear that they were interested in public safety and in solving crimes and that they wanted to hear the family's story and help. And so they actually got in touch with DHS and people down in Texas. Mobilized...
GREENE: Department of Homeland Security and the federal authorities. OK.
STILLMAN: Right, right. And so it was really a team effort to rescue these kids.
GREENE: Bryan and Robinson were rescued, handed over to authorities in Texas. Then after weeks in U.S. government custody, they were reunited with their parents. Their status now is uncertain, though. And the Godoys face the very real chance their sons will be deported back to Guatemala. Unlike the vast majority of undocumented migrants in their situation, the Godoys do have a lawyer.
Is the family optimistic?
STILLMAN: I think they are. I think they feel just - I think right now, they're just overwhelmed by the gratitude that their whole family is safe beneath one roof.
GREENE: Are they ready for the possibility of the kids being deported and having to move back to Guatemala?
STILLMAN: I think the idea is terrifying enough that they've said, you know, we'll all go back together. If that happens, we'll just have to go back and face the dangers together. And we'll bring our citizen daughter, I guess. And, I mean, that's a really complicated question for a lot of families who are mixed-status, and it's not an uncommon thing to see.
GREENE: Something very powerful you mentioned was photographs of the family with the police in Trenton, N.J., which I imagine can put them in some sort of danger if they go back to either visit or have to move back to Guatemala.
STILLMAN: Right. They were nervous at first about that. The police - this was a real point of pride for them - that they had actually had this relationship with the family whereby, you know, the family felt trusting and came forward to them and where they had this successful rescue. And the family was fearful at first. And ultimately they decided, you know, speaking publicly about their case, even though it's an common thing to do, might actually provide them an extra measure of safety. And more so, they hoped it would change the situation for other families.
GREENE: Now, Sarah, there are some who criticize a family like the Godoys for making a decision to put their kids in a position where they're going through this dangerous journey, right?
STILLMAN: Absolutely. I mean, I think that's a very common perspective you would hear. And that's certainly something that even a federal judge down in Texas essentially made the argument it makes sense to prosecute families who are undocumented who pay smugglers to bring their kids. And I think many people ask, well, how could you subject your kid to this incredibly scary journey that's really not safe? And I think for many families, it's a real measure of the desperation people are often fleeing - the poverty and the violence and exactly what the stakes are for them.
GREENE: These two teenagers - I mean, they're two stories, but they're two of so many. I mean, we've heard about these thousands of kids coming from countries like Guatemala, like Honduras and crossing into the United States by themselves. Have the numbers this year begun to go down at all, or is this problem just getting worse?
STILLMAN: Oh, they went down significantly after the last summer's incredible surge. And it's unknown what will happen in this coming summer. Sometimes these things are seasonal. But they've certainly seen a decline in the numbers.
GREENE: And what else do you feel like you've learned from telling the story of this family?
STILLMAN: It really made me think about how immigration can be such a polarizing and, like, hyper-political topic. And when you encounter an individual family going through what feels to them like an individual crisis, and then you look at how it maps on to sort of a much larger problem happening for so many families, both around the country and then around the world. It really kind of takes it out some of the political context and makes you just really think about what people go through out of the desire to be both safe and also to be unified - I mean, the intense desire of families in many cases to just find a way to all be beneath one roof.
GREENE: Sarah, thanks so much for coming in and talking about this.
STILLMAN: Thank you so much for having me.
GREENE: That's reporter Sarah Stillman. Her article on the migrant kidnapping crisis is in the current issue of the New Yorker. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.