WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

Photo: Sergio Borbolla

4 Apr 2024 | Publication

Kidnapping of Migrants and Asylum Seekers at the Texas-Tamaulipas Border Reaches Intolerable Levels

Content warning: This feature discusses sensitive topics including sexual violence and other forms of abuse.

“Kidnappings were always known, but they were not as normal as they are now,” a religious worker told us about the migrant population they work with. “They’re dragging people out of their tents at night, they’re taking entire families,” added the director of a humanitarian group. “Every woman we work with has been raped,” said an attorney working with asylum seekers. “Women start taking birth control before the journey because they know they might be raped,” affirmed a shelter director.

These are just some of the reports we heard in recent interviews with service providers working with migrants and asylum seekers along the Texas-Tamaulipas border. For people trying to migrate to the United States from Mexico’s southern border, this region, where Texas dips down to the southernmost point on the U.S.-Mexico border, is where the shortest path across Mexico leads. From 2013 to 2022, of the nine sectors into which Border Patrol divides the border, Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, which lies across the Rio Grande from Tamaulipas, saw more migrants than any other.

To migrate through Tamaulipas is to face serious danger. The state is under the heavy influence of violent organized crime groups, at times working in collusion with government officials. Tamaulipas is the only Mexican border state, and one of six Mexican states overall, to which the State Department has assigned a “level four—do not travel” designation, the same severity as Afghanistan. The power of criminal groups in Tamaulipas is fragmented: no single group has a monopoly. The result is that groups violently contest control over sources of illicit wealth and local institutions. While Mexican citizens are also subject to countless crimes and violence— Tamaulipas is one of the top states for disappearances in the country— it is a uniquely dangerous state for migrants and asylum seekers. Almost 14 years ago, in August 2010, 72 migrants were massacred by criminal groups in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, and since then dozens of clandestine graves believed to have the remains of migrants have been found. 

The groups controlling criminality in Tamaulipas make millions of dollars annually from cross-border drug trafficking, human trafficking, and migrant smuggling, an industry that has boomed under restrictive U.S. border policies that bottle up or return large numbers of migrants to northern Mexico. But this isn’t the only way criminal groups seek to extract as much money as possible from migrants: they also systematically kidnap migrants, inflicting physical and psychological harm, and demanding exorbitant ransoms from their relatives.

The thriving migrant kidnapping industry in Tamaulipas controls essentially any means of transportation: buses, taxis, rideshare apps, and even airports, for those able to fly in an attempt to avoid treacherous land travel. In Nuevo Laredo, kidnappings are so pervasive that they are informally known as “passing through the office,” a local migration researcher informed us. And while this problem is not new, service providers in several locations report that it has reached extreme levels in recent months. “All my clients have been kidnapped” said an asylum attorney in Nuevo Laredo.


From February to early March 2024, WOLA staff interviewed 15 researchers, humanitarian workers, and shelter staff working in Matamoros, Reynosa, and Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, or on the U.S. side of the same border region. Their identities have been withheld for security reasons. We note three alarming trends:

  1. The kidnapping and extortion of migrants has increased notably since late 2023. Many describe this moment as the worst period of violence they’ve seen, both in numbers and brutality.
  2. Many Mexican authorities tolerate or are actively involved in the migrant kidnapping enterprise.
  3. U.S. border policies continue to channel migrants and asylum seekers through Tamaulipas at disproportionately high rates, even though U.S. authorities are aware of the extreme dangers for migrants in this region of the border.

1. Kidnapping, physical and psychological violence, and extortion: a lucrative business 

Every service provider we spoke to in the region recounted that most, or all, of the people they served in the latter half of last year and this year had been kidnapped, battered, raped, forced to work for the cartel, or experienced other forms of abuse. Interviewees repeatedly told us that there are almost no safe spaces left for migrants in Tamaulipas—and that the situation is getting worse.

Kidnapping for ransom 

“Bus kidnappings, where armed groups intercept vehicles full of migrants in broad daylight, are a terror tactic that dehumanizes their victims and turns them into instruments of profit and power for the benefit of cartels and organized crime groups.”

-Staff member at Lawyers for Good Government

Criminal groups carry out constant surveillance, with eyes and ears throughout their territory, making it difficult for a migrant to go unidentified anywhere in Tamaulipas. Service providers with whom we spoke describe criminals grabbing people from tents in outdoor migrant camps, taking over entire buses full of migrants, waiting at terminals for buses to arrive and targeting people without Mexican identification, or collaborating with transportation services or Mexican authorities to have migrants dropped off at their “safe houses.”

One humanitarian volunteer in the Rio Grande Valley shared the story of a Guatemalan woman who sought to flee to the United States to escape gang members seeking to recruit her 8-year-old daughter into sex work. She attempted to access the port of entry (official border crossing) to ask for asylum, while she continued to receive threats, but was denied access. Criminals kidnapped her on her way back from the border bridge. Migrants “can’t be alone in Reynosa”, the volunteer told us.

Kidnapping, often accompanied by brutal physical and psychological violence, seeks to force the victims’ family members into paying extortion fees. Kidnappers often manipulate ransom prices according to the victim’s country of origin and ties to people in the United States. They use violence to acquire this information, along with other personal information that they might use to threaten the victims further after their release.

Kidnappers charge ransoms in dollars, usually wired from U.S.-based relatives. Saving loved ones from harm requires many to go into crippling debt or lose everything. A member of a Rio Grande Valley humanitarian collective recounted meeting people who even sold their homes to get family members out of captivity. Often, the person being extorted has undocumented status in the United States and fears asking U.S. authorities for help.

When victims manage to pay ransoms and win release, their abusers may drop them off at the doors of migrant shelters. The threatening environment brings a perpetual feeling of insecurity for service providers and migrants alike. Insecurity has forced some shelters to cease operations: Nuevo Laredo currently has closed all shelters in operation due to “members of organized crime threatening and perpetrating violence against shelter staff and migrants.”

Sexual violence in captivity 

“They’re beaten without mercy. Many are murdered in front of the others. Almost all the adults, both men and women are gang raped in front of their children. The survivors often show cigarette burns and slash marks on their genitals.”

Member of Angry Tias & Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley

Multiple service providers highlighted the increasing brutality of the abuse that kidnap victims are suffering. Many described the particular horrors experienced by women, including sexual assault, rape, or even gang rape in front of children and partners, though sexual violence is inflicted on men and children, as well. In Reynosa and Matamoros, Doctors Without Borders reported a 70 percent increase in sexual violence consultations with migrants in the last three months of 2023, and 28 cases in January 2024 alone: more than in any month of 2023.

Once in captivity, those who cannot pay ransom fees may face conditions approaching slavery, performing forced labor for criminal organizations, a group of humanitarian workers explained. They told us of mothers forced into sex work to protect their children, individuals forced to be interpreters for other kidnap victims, and people witnessing extreme physical violence and made to clean up rooms where such violence took place. Some are conditionally released to shelters so that they might report about other migrants staying there; the criminal group keeps a loved one in custody as a “deposit”. 

Some are held captive for months, though the duration is usually shorter. It is exceedingly rare for Mexican forces to rescue the people in captivity or to bring their perpetrators to justice. 

2. Mexican authorities are “ornamental or they’re participating, one or the other”

Quote from a humanitarian volunteer in the Rio Grande Valley

Service providers shared testimonies of abuse, detention, and extortion of migrants and asylum seekers by Mexican authorities, including multiple examples in which authorities either delivered migrants to organized criminal groups or turned a blind eye to public, broad-daylight abductions and assaults.

Our interviews yielded several stories of migrants being “sold” to cartels by Mexican authorities, mostly members of state police. In one account, a group of asylum seekers who had been turned away from a port of entry were in a house controlled by their smugglers as they prepared to cross the river into the United States. Tamaulipas state police officers arrived at the house, warning them that their smugglers were coming back to attack them and offering to protect them. Instead, the officers transported them directly to a cartel “safe house”, leaving them in the hands of cartel members.

Collusion with organized crime also happens through omission when authorities fail to react to or investigate migrant kidnappings, sometimes responding to calls for help with silence or refusals. We heard of Mexican state and federal authorities refusing to take action on a kidnapping case, despite humanitarian workers sending exact coordinates where the victim was being held.

‘Metering’ by Mexico’s migration authorities 

Agents of Mexico’s National Migration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migración, INM) control access to U.S. ports of entry from the Mexican side. They only allow one or two dozen asylum seekers without CBP One appointments to approach the ports each day, prioritizing access for migrants in a situation of heightened vulnerability who are accompanied by a local humanitarian organization. There are also reports of INM officers requesting payment in exchange for access (a long-standing, publicly reported problem). 

Some asylum attorneys flagged cases of INM asking migrants to recite a specific code provided by organized crime, signaling that they have “paid their dues.”

At the U.S. border, CBP’s practice of controlling asylum seekers’ ability to reach U.S. soil is called “metering,” and a federal court has declared that it violates U.S. law. Mexican authorities in Tamaulipas are thus carrying out the equivalent of an outsourced version of metering, a doubly concerning practice given accusations of collusion between such authorities and organized crime.

3. U.S. Border Policy: a cartel money-maker and asylum seeker nightmare

For an individual or family fleeing their home country and hoping to seek asylum in the United States, U.S. law offers few options. Asylum seekers can either:

  1. Secure an appointment at a port of entry using the CBP One smartphone app, with all the accompanying technological hurdles. This requires being in Mexico City or farther north, where they will wait for up to six months for an appointment at the border.
  2. Approach a port of entry to ask for asylum as one of a few daily “walkups”, if they are able to get past Mexican immigration authorities 
  3. Attempt to cross between ports of entry, which in the case of Tamaulipas requires getting across the river and organized crime’s paid permission, and turn themselves in to Border Patrol, a method that is a misdemeanor under U.S. law and may limit their ability to seek asylum. Despite the risks, many view this as their only choice, especially when fleeing imminent threats.

Asylum seekers with CBP One appointments in Tamaulipas face obvious dangers of kidnapping and violence if waiting near the border. For this reason, many choose to wait further south in Mexico, in cities such as Mexico City, the southernmost city where the app works, where the risks are fewer, traveling to the border region a day or two before their appointments. We were told this strategy frequently fails, however, because organized crime—often operating with the knowledge or collusion of authorities and transportation drivers—is waiting at bus stations and airports in Tamaulipas for those with appointments. 

People often miss their appointments with U.S authorities due to being kidnapped in Mexico; it is unlikely a coincidence that the “no-show” rate in Nuevo Laredo is especially high: a migration researcher informed us that roughly 65% make their appointments. Those who miss appointments are out of luck: barring exceptional intervention by authorities, CBP One forces the asylum seeker to restart the entire, months-long process of requesting an appointment. This ends up being another incentive to cross the river and surrender to Border Patrol instead.

U.S. officials know this is happening—but nothing changes

Organized crime is known to adapt its business strategies according to changes in U.S. migration policies: the rule is that border restrictions lead to violence and profitability for criminal groups, since the migrant smuggling and kidnapping industries become more lucrative. This was more than apparent in the high levels of attacks on migrants under the U.S’ Title 42 and “Remain in Mexico” policies’. Since CBP One was introduced, border region service providers have registered more kidnapping cases and a rising trend of extortion without kidnapping using brutal violence and intimidation tactics.

The dangers of travel through Tamaulipas are no secret. Yet the state’s ports of entry concentrate 43 percent of the daily appointments that CBP offers border-wide (630 out of 1,450). Since Laredo is the border’s busiest port, and McAllen and Brownsville are commercially important, CBP concentrates more personnel and infrastructure in these areas. CBP’s reluctance to move assets elsewhere to respond to asylum needs helps perpetuate the crisis.

Tamaulipas is also consistently the highest or second-highest Mexican border state where Mexican migrants from the U.S. interior are sent when deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In January 2024, the agency deported over 3,600 people into the state—over 100 per day, a concerning practice WOLA has been denouncing for over a decade. ICE often deports Mexican citizens into Tamaulipas because it is the closest segment of the border to the eastern United States, where the agency is constantly arresting migrants.

CBP officers and management know that Tamaulipas is notorious for kidnapping, rape, and brutal assaults of migrants, and that kidnappers are often brazenly waiting within a few hundred yards of the border bridges. Yet service providers have not seen the agency adjust its policies or practices to avoid these harms. 

Conclusion: “No one deserves this”

Quote from a migration researcher.

The targeting of migrants in Mexico’s northern cities is not a new phenomenon. Human rights organizations including WOLA have been seeking to address it for many years , starting well before policies like “Remain in Mexico” existed. In Tamaulipas, the brutality and frequency of abuse are especially intolerable and growing fast, which demands action from both the U.S. and Mexican governments. 

Current U.S.-Mexico border policies that severely limit access to ports of entry, force asylum seekers to wait many months in Mexico, and expel migrants into high-danger border cities like those surveyed here don’t just overlook the systematic victimization of migrants by organized crime: they facilitate it. If restricting the right to seek asylum is already intolerable when thousands of families and individuals are fleeing for their lives, it is even more unacceptable in light of the extreme dangers facing migrants on the Mexican side of the border.

The most important measure the U.S. government can take to address this humanitarian crisis, therefore, is to allow prompt access to the asylum system and avoid bottling up or returning migrants to dangerous border areas. Adjusting to heightened levels of asylum seeker arrivals in an orderly and safe manner doesn’t mean closing off access to asylum, but rather increasing processing capacity near ports of entry while improving asylum adjudication and case management overall. Mexico, for its part, should cease being complicit in U.S. border policies that unduly restrict the right to seek asylum at the border. 

Recommendations for the U.S and Mexican Governments

“We need to stop with the sanitized language and take responsibility for what we’re really doing.”

Member of Angry Tias & Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley

In the short term, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and CBP should:

  • Increase overall CBP One appointments border-wide, focusing on ports of entry in safer areas of the U.S.-Mexico border. At a March 21 House hearing, a top CBP official said “we’re not looking to expand the number of appointments” border-wide. It is urgent that the agency reconsider this position.
  • Immediately process asylum seekers who present at a port of entry after having missed their appointment due to being kidnapped or victimized on their way to the appointment.
  • Work with Mexican authorities to ensure that, rather than assuming a role of ‘outsourced metering’ at U.S. ports of entry, they guarantee that migrants and asylum seekers can approach ports safely.
  • Ensure that U.S. deportations to Mexico consider security concerns, to avoid delivering deportees into dangerous situations including into the hands of cartels. Fully align all policies and practices with the principle of non-refoulement, a human rights guarantee in U.S. and international law that prohibits authorities from sending people into situations where they are likely to face death, torture, or persecution.

For their part, Mexican authorities should: 

  • Prevent systematic patterns of migrant kidnapping including by positioning security forces in high-risk areas (which often occur in known, concrete locations such as bus terminals)
  • Respond promptly to kidnapping reports 
  • Investigate and prosecute perpetrators of kidnappings. This includes holding security forces, migration agents, and other state actors accountable for working in collusion with organized crime in kidnapping cases and for other abuses against migrants.

Finally, given the transnational nature of these crimes, which include victims on both sides of the border, US-Mexico cooperation should urgently focus on responding effectively to migrant kidnappings and investigating those responsible. As WOLA and partner organizations have highlighted previously, it is essential that bilateral collaboration and funding aimed at tackling transborder crime prioritize this issue, as one of the most violent phenomena affecting people in the border region. The U.S. Congress recognized this by providing funding in the FY2023 budget for a Resident Legal Advisor at the United States Embassy in Mexico, whose role would include addressing “cases of migrant kidnappings and particularly cases in which extortion payments are being demanded from relatives in the United States.” Both governments should ensure that people reporting migrant kidnappings are able to approach authorities to denounce the crimes regardless of their immigration status. 

Listen to three staff members at NGOs working on the Texas-Tamaulipas border talk about the kidnapping of migrants and asylum seekers.

Member of the Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley (Warning: Sensitive Content)

Staff Member at Lawyers for Good Government

Staff Member at Doctors Without Borders