MEXICO CITY – The Mexican Army has freed 165 migrants, mostly from Central America, who said they were kidnapped and held for several weeks by a criminal gang in northeastern Mexico, authorities said Thursday.
The freed migrants, including 20 minors and two pregnant women, were seized in Tamaulipas state as they were trying to cross into the United States, a government statement said.
They were captured in the same state where 72 migrants were found massacred at a ranch apparently owned by the Los Zetas drug cartel in 2010.
Acting on an anonymous tip, soldiers found the group being held at gunpoint in “precarious, unhealthy and overcrowded conditions” on a property in the town of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz on the U.S.-Mexican border.
The migrants were said to have languished at the site for two to three weeks.
A man guarding the migrants was arrested during the raid and others were being sought, Eduardo Sánchez, an Interior Ministry official, said in the statement.
“They were held against their will while the criminal group contacted their relatives by telephone demanding ransom be paid to the captors,” Sánchez said.
“Everything seems to indicate that the migrants were taken by smugglers commonly known as coyotes, and these offenders handed them over to criminal groups,” he said.
Among those freed were 77 Salvadorans, 50 Guatemalans, 23 Hondurans and an Indian national, Sánchez said. Another 14 were Mexicans.
Following the nationwide military crackdown on organized crime undertaken in December 2006, drug cartels have diversified their income sources by committing kidnapping, extortion, robbery and other crimes.
Around 140,000 Central Americans illegally enter Mexico’s southern frontier each year in the hope of eventually reaching the United States, according to government figures.
The Mesoamerican Migrant Movement says some 70,000 Central Americans disappeared in Mexico from 2006-2012, a period that coincides with the intensification of the drug war by former president Felipe Calderón.
Calderón ordered a military crackdown on powerful drug cartels in 2006, which was followed by a massive spike in violence that claimed tens of thousands of lives.
The National Human Rights Commission estimated in 2011 that about 20,000 migrants are kidnapped every year in Mexico, where they are held for ransoms of more than $2,000 paid by family members in the U.S.
Every day, desperate migrants who enter Mexico by land from the Guatemala border jump on the freight train known as “The Beast” as it travels from southern Mexico to Mexico City.
During their journey, they are often targets of assaults, sometimes at the point of machetes, as well as extortion and murder, civil society groups say.