September 2, 2010 / 5:35 PM / 9 years ago

Drug gangs prey on migrants in risky Mexico journey

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Hermelindo Maquin set out from his home in the Guatemalan countryside in early August, leaving behind his small farm and pregnant wife as he began the long, perilous journey to the United States.

A relative holds photographs of Hermelindo Maquin Huertas in Aguas Calientes August 28, 2010. REUTERS/Doriam Morales

Weeks later, the 24-year-old’s blindfolded and bloodstained body was found in a shed on a remote ranch, one of 72 Central and South Americans executed in the latest attack by drug gangs preying on migrants travelling north through Mexico.

The massacre was another sinister turn in Mexico’s drug war, which has killed 28,000 since President Felipe Calderon began battling the cartels in late 2006 and is now intensifying as rival gangs wage turf wars and muscle into new rackets.

Relatives of Maquin and other migrants from as far away as Brazil were shocked to learn of the shooting, allegedly by the brutal Zetas cartel, near the end of a long trip when the travellers were only around 90 miles (150 km) from the U.S. border.

“We were praying for them. We were worried about floods, and by the fact they had no money and no food. But we never thought this would happen,” one of Maquin’s relatives in Guatemala said, asking to go unnamed for fear of reprisals.

The killing also prompted outcry from Latin American leaders who complain Mexico has failed to protect migrants even as it denounces Mexicans’ treatment in the United States.

“We feel that Mexico needs to react and act responsibly to ensure that Mexican authorities are in control, rather than criminal organizations and human traffickers,” Honduran Foreign Minister Mario Canahuati said following the massacre.

Countless Latin American migrants journey some 1,900 miles (3,000 km) through Mexico to find better-paying U.S. jobs, travelling by car, truck, or foot, some clinging to the top of cargo trains or hiding in secret compartments built into tractor trailers.

Some migrants pay as much as $10,000 (£6,499) to smugglers who promise to get them into the United States. Many others see their journeys end in robbery, assault or arrest.

The dangers have been compounded in recent years by cartels expanding into the human trafficking trade, exploiting vulnerable and anonymous migrants who can carry drugs across the U.S. border or whose families they can extort for ransom.

Corrupt Mexican police are often accused of playing a role, turning illegal migrants over to drug gangs for a price.

DREAM IS FINISHED

Despite high U.S. unemployment, many people still make the long, costly and dangerous trip to the United States, home to an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Cash sent home from migrants working in the United States is crucial to poor families in countries like Honduras, where remittances are equal to over a fifth of GDP.

One Honduran migrant, who identified himself only as Alex, has taken refuge at a church shelter near Mexico City while his sister, who was travelling north with him, recovers after severing her leg falling off a cargo train.

The dangers facing migrants in Mexico have prompted Alex to abandon plans to find work in the United States. “I say to my countrymen from Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala that this dream of ours is finished,” he said.

Yet Valdete Wilemam, a nun who works with deported migrants in Honduras, says economic necessity prompts many of the region’s poor to take such risks again and again.

“Central Americans aren’t going to stop going to the United States even though they know they’re in danger,” she said.

Mexican Interior Minister Francisco Blake vowed this week the government would redouble efforts to keep migrants safe.

That pledge comes too late for Jorge Sevilla, a 27-year-old who was one of 21 Hondurans killed in the Tamaulipas massacre.

“Look at my brother. He was looking to give his two sons a better life and look at what he found,” Sevilla’s brother Wilson said.

Hermelindo Maquin and the two in-laws he was travelling with called home about a week into the journey from Guatemala to say they had made it to Mexico’s eastern state of Veracruz.

The migrants told their relatives they had met up with a coyote that would take them into the United States for $2,500 each. It was the last time their family heard from them.

Reporting by Sarah Grainger in Guatemala City, Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, Alberto Fajardo and Tomas Sarmiento in Mexico City, Jose Cortes in Oaxaca; writing by Missy Ryan; Editing by Kieran Murray

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