It’s the phone call every Mexican immigrant in America dreads—the anonymous, vulgar, and threatening voice demanding ransom for a family member’s release. Such an event can throw an entire family into distress, calling distant relatives, friends, friends of friends, and anyone else who might be able to lend money. And even if a ransom can be gathered together, that’s no guarantee a kidnapping victim in Mexico will be released.
But why should Americans care? Because this horror, this distress, fear, and chaos could be happening to a Mexican family you know, you live next to, or you come across every day.
The drug war in Mexico is like cancer; everyone there either knows someone who has survived it, or knows someone who has died from it. Most Americans don’t understand the connection that’s maintained between Mexican immigrants in the US and their friends and family in Mexico. Word of mouth is very powerful, and often when a Mexican national gets deported, people in Mexico usually their friend or family member is on the way home. Especially in smaller communities, it’s easy to discover most people’s whereabouts, which is why it’s typical for a kidnapper to be able to contact a kidnap victim’s relatives in the US relatively quickly.
The nature of the Mexico’s drug war has changed quite a bit in the last seven years. It used to be that only the “bad guys”—people directly involved in the drug business—were killing or getting killed themselves. But as drug trafficking revenue shrinks due to enforcement efforts and competition between TCOs, criminals have had to turn to other methods of generating profits. As kidnapping for ransom has grown in popularity in Mexico, so has the targeting of innocent people—namely, Mexican and Central American migrants headed north, or Mexican citizens with family members already living in the U.S.
The problem is, Mexican TCOs view immigrants—legal or otherwise—as a potential source of easy cash. Many migrants pay a smuggler, known as a coyote, several thousand dollars to ensure safe passage to, then across, the US-Mexico border. TCO thugs and border bandits know these migrants had a source of cash to pay the coyotes, and assume there must be more where that came from.
They also know migrants usually have friends and/or family members already living in the US. Under duress, kidnapped migrants can provide cartel kidnappers with information about their family members in the US who hopefully can round up enough cash to ensure their release. Often enough, migrants can’t come up with the ransom and are executed on the spot, their bodies buried in mass graves along some deserted stretch of a Mexican road, or left to bake in the desert sun.
Even if these migrants arrive safely in the US, this doesn’t mean they’re in the clear. Chances are they left some family members behind in Mexico. They may find work, and save enough money to start living a decent life and send some money back home. Then a year or two later, they may be the ones on the receiving end of that dreaded phone call.
No matter where in the US you live, chances are there’s at least a small Mexican community there, or in the city closest to you. It’s likely you cross paths with someone from Mexico on a regular basis—at a restaurant, a hotel, the supermarket, or any number of stores and businesses. The next time you talk to someone from Mexico, ask him or her what part of the country he or she is from (and commit it to memory so you can do a Google News search on it when you get home). Next, ask if he or she still has family there; the answer will almost always be yes.
Finally, ask if any of them have been affected by the ongoing violence. Again, the answer will almost always be yes. A friend or relative who has been kidnapped, threatened, forced to go into the drug trade, received threatening phone calls, witnessed a murder or shootout…be prepared. The answer may surprise you. As Americans, we need to understand that Mexico is not fighting this war alone. We are inextricably tied to Mexico’s economy, its drug war, and its people. Thus, it’s not just Mexico’s drug war; it’s our war, too.