Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Del Rio, Texas Migrant Crisis: The Cartels Who Kidnap Them or Smuggle Them Across

"HEARST" for Borderland Beat

The small Texas border town of Del Rio is currently overwhelmed by the sudden surge of thousands of migrants who are currently living under the International bridge. The massive spike in migration which created the Del Rio camp has overwhelmed the authorities and caused significant delays in border processing, slowing the system down to a halt on multiple occasions over the weekend. 

The camps which arise to house migrants who are waiting for their chance to be processed by border authorities make vulnerable targets for cartel organizations such as the Northeast cartel (Cartel del Noroeste, CDN) and others. 

The business of coyotes, or human smugglers who guide migrants across the border illegally, used to have a degree of independence, but it is now largely run by cartel organizations. Additionally, migrants are overwhelmingly targeted in kidnapping for ransom schemes.

On Friday, September 17, 2021, the Del Rio ports of entries were closed with little notice. Then on Sunday, September 19, 2021, the state police physically barricaded the border with their vehicles. 

Irma G. Rocha, 55, a Mexican-American clerk at a gas station located just a few miles from the international bridge spoke to the New York Times while in a state of disbelief saying, “This is something of biblical proportions, the bridge never closes. Never. I know people keep saying this, but nothing like this has ever happened here.”

When Irma Rocha first heard about the border closing, she quickly dialed a daughter who had told her moments earlier that she was running an errand on the Mexican side, hoping to catch her in time.

“You are already there?’ she asked, a tremble in her voice. “Hija, te dije que no fueras. I told you not to go. Now you are stuck, you are stuck for God knows how long.”

Del Rio is a bicultural city, with workers and residents going back and forth across the bridge daily.  Hispanics make up 85 percent of the town’s population. Some residents have dual citizenship or work visas and move between the cities with the same ease that people go to the grocery store.

The Sunday border closing comes in response to a surge of Haitian migrants who have been crowding under and around the Del Rio International Bridge in Texas while awaiting processing by border authorities. During processing, those with a sponsor or a relative living in the United States are given temporary permits to remain in the country until an immigration judge can hear their case. 

The Wall Street Journal estimates the number of migrants waiting at Del Rio currently at around 15,000. The bridge site very quickly grew into a shantytown; creating a humanitarian challenge that spilled out of control within a matter of days, as many waiting are going without basic necessities. 



Efforts have been made to put less strain on the Del Rio border crossing by spreading out some of the influx out to other US-Mexico border crossings. The New York Times writes that “most of the migrants who have remained around the bridge have been transferred to other border locations for processing or are being flown back to Haiti on deportation flights that began on Sunday.” 

On Monday, September 20, 2021, three thousand migrants were sent for processing to other areas, relocated by the U.S. Coast Guard and other federal officials. This comes after nearly 3,500 more were sent to other border crossing areas in the days before.

Recent border statistics show that the number of specifically Haitians migrants making their way through the Del Rio region has increased to new heights. The data shows the surge began in June 2021, a period that saw more than twice as many Haitians crossing the border illegally when compared with the month prior, going from 1,565 border encounters in the month of May to 4,094 encounters in the month of June. 

Overall, unauthorized immigration has reached levels not seen in two decades. Last month alone, more than 200,000 migrants crossed the border from Mexico, bringing the total for this fiscal year to about 1.5 million.

The Courier Journal writes that more than ever, the available human smugglers, known as “coyotes” or “polleros”, for hire are tied to Mexican drug cartels. As more migrants choose to use smugglers overtime, cartels have become increasingly more interested in the business, especially since they were already smuggling drugs across the border.

"Criminal organizations control the border, so they control who and what crosses the border. And that becomes a lucrative moneymaker, a revenue generator for these cartels.” said Gary Hale, a law enforcement and intelligence professional who now has a fellowship in drug policy and Mexico studies at the Baker Institute.

Most migrants are willing and ready to pay thousands to get to the United States, and the cartels are more than happy to oblige, all while making large profits helping smuggle migrants from these camps across the border. 

Jaeson Jones, a former Texas public safety captain, said there’s no way to know exactly how much cartels earn in the smuggling business. “But I can without any doubt tell you that the profits they are making today are like nothing we have seen prior," he said. "This is a major revenue stream.”

As Borderland Beat recently covered, in places like Mexicali cartel operations have recently expanded, forcing local human smugglers who used to work independently to “fall in line” with the Los Rusos cartel. But in some places, Jones says, the cartels are doing more than just making demands on established smugglers. 

“What we see now is a much more harmonized cycle occurring," he said. "You see that in the way that [the cartels] are processing migrants before they cross into the United States — putting wristbands on them, for example.” These wristbands referred to were covered more in depth by MX back in March.

He detailed that some migrants who can’t pay the fee are now making a pledge of services as repayment of debt and this is able to be enforced because the cartels are “logging everything about them, that's how they're able to keep them into debt bondage.” 

Adding more danger to the cartel-operated border smuggling are the disputes between cartels. When nineteen Guatemalans attempting to make a border crossing were found burned to death on January 22, 2021, some Central American media outlets reported that families of the deceased said they were gunned down by the Northeast cartel, who believed they were the property of the rival Gulf cartel.

Complicating this further is the reports from the Associated Press which details that five migrants who survived the January 22 massacre said in police interviews that they were shot at by a state police unit as they were taken towards the border. This later led to over a dozen Tamaulipas State Police officers to be charged in relation to the incident and put into custody, bringing up questions of cartel complicity motivating their massacre.  


Another concern is how migrant encampments are often targeted for cartel organized kidnappings. Border Report, a news publication focused on the local stories of the people living along the U.S. border with Mexico, recently spoke to an insider who attended meetings between the city government of Reynosa, Tamaulipas and migrant aid workers. 

The insider revealed that the Reynosa government was working to relocate a migrant asylum-seekers camp located in Plaza las Americas to another location due to issues of cartel kidnappings. 

They said the new location would “be another encampment but it will have protection of the city. The city would have more control. So the cartels shouldn’t be able to come in and kidnap people every day. There will be a difference in the protection of the asylum-seekers.”

The insider continued “The goal is, and we do agree, is to close that encampment on the plaza. Too many kidnappings happen on that plaza; too many assaults are happening. People should not be out there.”

The Los Angeles Times writes that in Reynosa and Matamoros, it’s not city officials or even migrants who ultimately control the plaza — it’s the cartel. Migrants who enter or leave the city without paying a smuggler risk getting kidnapped and held for ransom. So do those who leave the camp, even for a few hours to shop or look for work.

Honduran migrant Lesly Pineda, a factory worker, said told the LA times that she and her 11-year-old son Joan were kidnapped with eight other migrants in July and released only after she paid a $2,000 ransom

They then spoke to Guatemalan asylum seeker Jose Torres, who has an adult daughter and two granddaughters back in Guatemala, still ventures out of the camp to work odd jobs. He fears cartel kidnappers, Mexican police and taxi drivers lingering at the edges of the camp, because other migrants who have hailed taxis at the camp were later kidnapped.

“The whole world here is a red zone of corruption. There’s no escape,” Torres said, “If they kidnap me again, they’re going to kill me because I have nothing to give them.”

Sources: New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Border Report Article 1, Article 2, Article 3, Article 4, Courier JournalAssociated Press, ABC, NBC, Los Angeles Times, NPR

Borderland Beat Stories: Los Rusos Expanding in Mexicali, Mexican Cartels Use Wristband System 

Photo Credit: PBS, CNN, Border Report, Border Report, Border Report, New York Times, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, NPR  


  1. Everyone wants the American dream, but they don't realize the dangers at the border. Also the rents are expensive in many parts.

    1. I think the big U.S. cities have big problems with homeless. How is the U.S. going to be able to help. The drugs are crossing pretty easy. I really don't understand the Politicians, let's take care of our people first. My father became an American citizen the old way I think it took 7 years.

  2. The U.S. border is closed to Mexican Nationals, but open to illegal entry.

    1. Carlos El Chavo, the border is not closed..12,000 Hatians made it into Texas in 3 days. Besides I haven't forgotten you said the Border patrol is busy changing diapers of imagrants, so the BORDER is open to everyone, bring in Motta and sell it retail for a profit.

  3. This by far one of the best border crisis pieces ever, the amount of time and hard work shown by Hearst is amazing and over all so carefully researched and documented. Thanks Hearst


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