REYNOSA Mexico (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Central American migrants are being kidnapped, abused and extorted by Mexican gangs just yards from the United States in a growing racket that may be worth up to $250 million a year.
Arriving in ragtag border towns like Reynosa, Mexico's migrant kidnapping capital where police in armored vehicles patrol the streets and daytime shootouts are commonplace, migrants are picked off buses by gangs who federal authorities say are in cahoots with local officials.
They are then held captive in small houses packed with dozens of fellow migrants, where they are ransomed for up to $5,000 a head. Women who cannot pay face rape, while men risk beatings and conscription into gang ranks, police say.
Juan Marcos Guardado, a 27-year-old roofer, said he was betrayed by a fellow Honduran shortly after arriving by bus in Reynosa. The man handed Guardado over to men who said they were members of the feared Gulf Cartel and extorted $1,500 from his relatives. They then passed him onto another kidnapping group.
"I've been kidnapped, I've been beaten, I've been robbed, I've been put to work and not been paid, just for being a lousy illegal migrant," he said, showing the burns and scars that cover his skinny frame and close-cropped scalp.
The kidnapping of Central American migrants, some of the poorest people in the Americas, is not new.
In 2010, the ultra-violent Zetas cartel was behind a massacre of 72 kidnapped migrants in the northeastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, where both the Zetas and their enemy, the Gulf Cartel, were born.
But a recent surge in the number of Central American migrants heading for the United States - coupled with successful operations by Mexican security forces to disrupt cartels' drug business - has turned a former sideline into an increasingly important revenue stream for rank and file cartel members.
The capture or killing of various high-profile cartel leaders in recent months has also splintered criminal groups like the Gulf Cartel and Zetas, leaving loosely affiliated cells to fend for themselves. Vulnerable migrants prove easy prey.
While drugs remain the cartels' top earner, law enforcement officials and drug policy experts say a fall in seizures along a beefed-up U.S. border with Mexico points to fewer shipments. Kidnappings help make up the revenue.
The amount of cocaine seized along the United States' southwestern border with Mexico has fallen more than 55 percent since 2011, U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows.
As a result, "we've entered into a much more predatory stage," said Antonio Mazzitelli, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Mexico, referring to the systematic kidnap and extortion of migrants.
"The crisis in the drugs market has led these groups, and the new ones that have appeared, to focus ever more on these new markets, which are becoming complimentary to, or even substituting, the drugs business," he said.
It's tough to calculate how much the migrant-kidnapping business is worth. In 2009, Mexico's National Human Rights Commission estimated the business generated around $50 million a year, but security experts say that figure has since surged.
A senior Mexican migration official in Tamaulipas told Reuters Mexican gangs now earn at least $100 million a year from kidnapping migrants, and business leaders believe it is closer to $250 million, based on the numbers of migrants passing through Tamaulipas and kidnapping cases they are aware of.
The migration official, who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons, said the number of people being rescued has doubled since last year, some 600 people year-to-date in the south of Tamaulipas alone. He interprets this as a sign that more people are being kidnapped rather than an indication the security forces are enjoying greater success.
"They charge the same for a child as for an adult or a pregnant woman," he said, estimating that at any given time, there is a revolving pool of 5,000 kidnapped migrants across Mexico based on cases he has seen.
A senior Reynosa police officer, who insisted on anonymity for fear of retaliation, said migrant kidnapping groups use a vast network of lookouts to scout for new targets.
Two of his colleagues were arrested in July on suspicion of criminal links, and he said some police worked with gangs and tipped them off about planned raids.
"Any migrant who arrives here runs a very high risk of being kidnapped," he said.
Paola Quinonez' capture was typical.
On June 13, a group of men hauled the 21-year-old Honduran single mother off a bus outside Reynosa. The driver, who let the men on, laughed as they dragged her off, she said.
The men put her in a small house with 30 other migrants and called her cousin in the United States, asking him for $2,000 to free her, or $4,000 to move her north across the border.
When her cousin told them he couldn't pay, Quinonez feared she would be killed.
"If you pay, you'll see your family again," the men told her. "If not, who knows?"
Quinonez was later rescued and has a one-year visa to stay in Mexico, where she advocates for migrant rights.
Officials on both sides of the border say almost all extortion transfers are made via payment transfer company Western Union. Prominent anti-kidnapping activist Isabel Miranda de Wallace said most abductors ask for the money to be sent to retail bank Banco Azteca, which uses Western Union infrastructure.
A Western Union spokesman said in an email to Reuters it was aware of the issue and worked closely with law enforcement to avoid its services being misused.
Azteca said the bank "fully complies with anti-money laundering regulations and has implemented additional programs in specific areas such as Tamaulipas where authorities have expressed concerns about illicit activities."
The kidnappers typically ask for the funds to be wired to a proxy account of someone who is either pressured into receiving the cash, or receives a commission, often in the region of $150, immigration experts say.
That 'name-for-hire' may receive up to 150 wire transfers before they are cut loose. The account holders are unlikely to turn on the gangs for fear of retribution, making it hard for authorities to determine who the money is ultimately delivered to.
The business does not end at the border, however. Even if they make it across the frontier, migrants risk being abducted by gangs and criminals operating on U.S. soil.
Greg Palmore, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Houston, said "drop houses" in Houston alone generate "into the millions of dollars" a year for criminals. Drop houses are used by people smugglers to hold illegal migrants while they are awaiting payment.
A March raid in Houston freed 115 Central Americans, who had been kept almost naked in a house after their shoes and clothes were confiscated to prevent them from escaping. The house also contained several hundred birds police believe were used in an illegal cock-fighting ring.
"We are seeing a lot more violence and abuse of the aliens, and more firearms in the stash houses," Palmore said. "More and more of the human smuggling situations we encounter involve murder, rape and assault."
Most U.S. drop houses are in Houston and south Texas, U.S. immigration officials say, noting that many of the kidnappers are former kidnapping victims, while others are U.S. citizens.
In Mexico, federal police have rescued 71,415 kidnapped migrants since 2007, according to the National Citizen Observatory, a civil group which monitors justice and security in Mexico.
Almost all of those were Central Americans, with 51 percent hailing from Guatemala, about a quarter from El Salvador and just under 20 percent from Honduras.
During her 10-day incarceration, Quinonez was held in two different houses in residential neighborhoods of Reynosa. The houses were filled with Central American mothers, many with children just a few months old. Most people slept on the floor in filthy conditions. Quinonez barely ate during her ordeal and picked up an eye infection.
Although she saw no rapes, she said her captors regularly beat and insulted their male hostages. They would also brag about how they controlled the police in Reynosa.
Every night around midnight, those who had managed to pay for their freedom were taken from the house to cross into the United States, she said.
Unable to pay, Quinonez sunk into a deep depression. But she was smart. When her jailers told her to call her relatives for money, she secretly called contacts at a shelter in southern Mexico and described her location.
On June 23, two federal police officers arrived at the house, calling her name. The kidnappers immediately fled, but were later apprehended. The police, she would later learn, had been sent from Mexico City to avoid leaks.
"It's just not fair. People shouldn't have to go through ordeals like this," Quinonez said.
Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter and Simon Gardner; Additional reporting by Amanda Orr in Houston and Anahi Rama in Mexico City; Editing by Kieran Murray and Ross Colvin