The ransom was set at around $2000 a life but varied. It amounted to more or less what that person would pay to cross the border. The trio told me that some families paid as little as $1000, while others paid up to $3000 for the release of their loved ones. As each victim made the ransom-demand call, the kidnappers slapped and punched them, while threatening worse. They wanted the victims’ families to hear the terror their loved ones were experiencing.
When it became César’s turn to call, the kidnappers slugged him across his broad shoulders, but César would only grunt and tell his mother that everything was okay. This infuriated the gunmen who began to strike him harder. They wanted him to plead, but he refused. Eventually, he was beaten so badly across his back he complied with their demands.
When I asked César about that part of his ordeal, he never mentioned the beating. The look on his face never changed. Later, Lazaro said, “You should have asked to see his back.” Alfredo nodded in agreement. “Purple and black.”
“Did they beat you too?” I asked.
Lazaro and Alfredo laughed. “Not after what we saw them do to César. All they had to do was raise their hands, and we started squawking like chickens.”
By Thursday evening, the ransoms of 14 out of the 18 crossers being held hostage had been paid into a bank account. On that night, the kidnappers told them all that they would be set free. Even the four who couldn’t make ransom would be released. The captives believed that they would be freed that night. Then the leader’s cell phone rang.
Whoever was on the other end of the call ordered the gunmen not to move anybody that night. This was because a large shipment of drugs was going to go through that sector, and they didn’t want anybody drawing attention to the area. César, Lazaro, Alfredo, and the other hostages had to spend another night in captivity.
In the morning, the 18 men were herded down from their makeshift prison and told to march toward the border. None of the three wanted to continue the journey northward. As they later told me, “We were broke. They’d even stolen most of our food. All the good stuff. We just wanted to return to Tijuana and figure out what to do next.” But the gunmen would not let them return. They told the prisoners to head toward the border and not to “come back that way for nothing.” No doubt they didn’t want them interfering with the next batch of victims. To show they meant business, they fired several rounds over the heads of the fleeing men.
The entire group of 18 were tracked by Homeland Security agents as they crossed. Fifteen were apprehended as they entered the US. Only César, Lazaro, and Alfredo managed to elude the agents.
“The agents began pressuring the others to tell them where we were hiding. We could hear him yelling. He was telling them that they knew how many were in the group.”
“Where are the other three?”
The agents told the tired and hungry crossers that they weren’t going anywhere until the rest were found. Someone eventually told the agents where the three lay hidden, and they were caught.
I wanted to ask, “Why were you hiding from the migra if you hadn’t wanted to cross at all?” But I already knew the answer. You have to think like a crosser. They’d already been deported once — twice in Lazaro’s case. If they were caught again, they’d be in trouble. Once on the U.S. side, they had no choice but to try and avoid detection.
I asked if there was any physical coercion of the detainees, and all three men said no. Not once did they see a border agent strike anyone. But there was extensive verbal abuse. César speaks perfect English and understood every word. He translated for the others, so they all knew what the agents had been saying: “All of you m----rf-----s suck, ’cause you got caught!”
On Saturday, the former hostages filled out a report with Homeland Security. Lazaro later told me that one of the agents said a total of $30,000 had been extorted from the families of the 14 who’d paid. The kidnappers had grabbed their victims on Wednesday, and by Thursday evening the money was in an account. Only the drug shipment had prevented them from dumping their quarry and gathering up another group. What should have taken two days wound up taking three. That still came out to $10,000 a day, $70,000 a week — if you don’t take a day off.
A recent article in one of Tijuana’s dailies stated that “40 percent of the undocumented immigrants being deported from the United States are dumped at the Tijuana port of entry.” I normally pass through there several times a week and always see lines of deportees.
I asked Lazaro and Alfredo about their treatment by the private security firm known as Wackenhut, which houses and transports deportees to the border — “the men in gray,” as they referred to them. “Those guys are way worse than the guys in green,” meaning the federal agents. “They hit you and always yell at you.”
By that Sunday, all three were back on my block and recovering from their ordeal. When I found out what happened, I asked if I could interview them and write an article about their trek. They agreed. And then I told them that I would protect their identities.
César asked to be interviewed first because he’d already bought a bus ticket south. His family in the U.S. had convinced him not to try the journey again until a safer way could be secured. They’d wired him money and informed relatives in Guadalajara that their son was on his way. César was the youngest of the three crossers, and it was obvious that his mother had been worried sick about him.