REYNOSA, Mexico – The deportees arrive after dark, usually 100 to 200 of them, deposited by U.S. immigration officials at a bridge that connects the United States to one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico.
Many of the deportees, all Mexican, have been living illegally in the United States for years, and they don’t know Reynosa’s reputation. It is the least secure city in Mexico, according to a government survey. It is in a state, Tamaulipas, that is the only place along Mexico’s northern border to carry the State Department’s most severe travel warning, putting it in the same category as Afghanistan and North Korea.
From 2017 to 2018, the number of homicides more than doubled to 225 in the city of 600,000. At least another 2,500 people are missing. Criminal groups enrich themselves through kidnapping and extortion, with migrants among their most common targets.
Last year, a third of people deported from the United States to Mexico, about 60,000 as of October, were sent through Tamaulipas. About 16,500 of the deportees arrived in Reynosa. Mexican officials and human rights advocates argue that the U.S. practice of sending deportees to these areas is a flagrant human rights violation.
Mexico’s new administration says it plans to formally ask the United States to stop deportations to Reynosa and other dangerous, poorly resourced border cities, and instead concentrate on safer ports of entry.
“The ideal solution is not to have Reynosa as a point of return,” said Tonatiuh Guillén, head of Mexico’s national immigration authority.
Ricardo Calderon, Tamaulipas state’s top immigration official, greets the deportees almost every night, explaining how cautious they need to be while in Reynosa, near the southern tip of Texas, across the border from Hidalgo.
“The fact is, they’re deporting people to one of the most dangerous places on the border,” he said from his office near the international bridge. “If people leave here to get something to eat, they’re going to be kidnapped.”
Officials have catalogued a string of crimes against both deportees and other migrants. In 2017, the Tamaulipas government recorded dozens of cases of migrants being kidnapped or extorted by criminal groups. That year, the governor of the state created a program known as “Project Safe Passage,” providing a police escort to deportees as they navigate the city, a precaution not taken in any other state.
“I tell them, ‘Either you arrive with us, or you don’t arrive at all,’ ” said Mario Garcia, another state immigration official. The program also warns deportees that if they attempt to travel independently, they should expect to be kidnapped.
The threats are constant. In some cases, Calderon said, deportees have been taken away at gunpoint after withdrawing money to pay for bus tickets to their hometowns. In other cases, criminal groups stop southbound buses leaving Reynosa and force deportees out. The kidnappers then ask for several thousand dollars from the migrants’ family members to secure their release. In October, 22 kidnapped migrants, most of them Honduran, were rescued in a single police operation.
“They’re seen as easy targets,” Calderon said, “people with relatives in the U.S. who can pay a ransom.”
In 2016, Mexico’s federal government agreed to limit deportations from the United States to 12 border crossings, including Reynosa. It was an attempt to streamline the process, even though the inclusion of several dangerous locations in Mexico angered local officials and raised human rights concerns.
When asked about the deportations, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement refused to comment on concerns about the security of deportees but said the Mexican government had agreed to accept deportees in Reynosa.
“Why Tamaulipas? Why keep deporting people through a place where they are consistently kidnapped, recruited and extorted? The U.S. response is mostly that Mexicans have agreed to it,” said Maureen Meyer, director for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America. “On the Mexican side, it’s been hard for the government to admit that part of their border is so insecure that the U.S. shouldn’t send anyone there.”