Migrants from Another World: Part 5

A Cruel Business: Investigations on human trafficking and drug cartels along the migrant route through the Americas

Coatzacoalcos, in Mexico’s Veracruz state, along the migrant route north through the Americas. Felix Marquez
12 September, 2020

Reported by Estevan Muniz, Suchit Chávez, José Guarnizo, Juan Antonio Gómez, Alberto Pradilla, Deepak Adhikari, Ushinor Majumdar, Manno Wangnao, Sebastian Ortega, Noelia Esquivel Solano, Mary Trini Zea, Paul Mena and Giancarlo Fiorella.

On Tuesday, 10 May 2016, Brazilian federal police intercepted a parcel being sent from a DHL office in São Paulo to Johannesburg, South Africa. The parcel contained five passports with false visas issued to two Kenyans, two Somalis and an Eritrean citizen, apparently stamped by Brazilian consulates in Mozambique, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

Abdifatah Hussein Ahmed, a South African citizen residing in Brazil, was the sender. He had already sent two similar parcels in late 2015, one to a man in Angola and the other to someone in Johannesburg, as was later discovered by the police, who were investigating Hussein Ahmed on suspicion of heading a human trafficking cell.

Investigators followed Hussein Ahmed’s trail until they discovered he had two partners in the trafficking business: Abdessalem Martani, of Algeria, and Mohsen Khademi Manesh, of Iranian origin. The trio provided citizens of various African countries with fraudulent visas that allowed them to enter Brazil, Bolivia or Venezuela. The migrants then set out on their 8,000-kilometre-long journeys—sometimes longer, depending on the starting point—to the United Stated or Canada.

According to the police, Hussein Ahmed and his network transported Abdi Yussuf Wardere, a Kenyan, and Mohamed Ibrahim Qoordheer, a Somali, two alleged members of the armed Islamic organisation al-Shabaab, which has committed acts of terror in Somalia and Kenya. A joint investigation conducted by the Brazilian federal police and the US immigration service finally led to Hussein Ahmed’s arrest on charges of human trafficking in August 2019.

Details of these and other operations came to light thanks to a nine-month cross-border journalistic investigation conducted by the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism (CLIP), in partnership with the European journalistic group Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, and 18 allied media houses from Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Mexico, the United States, Great Britain, India, Cameroon and Nepal.

A migrant holds a pin of the flag of Cameroon. Salvador Meléndez

This investigation specifically included the review of numerous judicial files and intelligence reports, and interviews with international, national and local authorities, as well as academics and experts, local coyotes—smugglers who specialize in ferrying people through Latin America into the United States—and international traffickers, along with dozens of migrants in the Americas, Africa and Asia.

The journalistic alliance also found that the human smugglers operate through complex networks of front men, small businesses, travel agencies, hotels and money-transfer agencies around the world. They rely on lawyers, document forgers at embassies and consulates, and corrupt immigration and police officers at airports, borders and customs posts—engaging in complex dealings which can go years before being detected.

Brazil: a traffic hub 

The case of Hussein Ahmed reveals Brazil to be a hub for various criminal networks that coordinate small cells throughout the Americas. These cells profit from the global forces that push Asian and African migrants out of their countries: wars, political persecution or economic crises. It is a cruel business. These traffickers suck every penny from migrants and their families, promising to open the doors to the American dream. These migrants are passed along like merchandise—men, women and children—from one country to another, by plane, boat, bus and often weeks on foot, making their way across dangerous terrain without the necessary equipment or preparation.

In recent years, the trafficking business has boomed as new routes to the Americas have emerged, especially from countries such as Nepal, India and Bangladesh. Divergent policies in different Latin American countries—Brazil, Argentina and Ecuador have instituted more open migration controls while Mexico and Colombia have cracked down on the entry of migrants—have created the perfect breeding ground for smuggling networks.

Learning rapidly to exploit open policies wherever they exist, these networks set foot in the Americas. From there, they organise clandestine passage through borders with tighter restrictions. Brazil receives the most transcontinental migrants in the Americas. The country’s National Committee for Refugees (Conare) has had 47,124 active refugee claims from Asia and Africa since 2013, with the highest numbers of applicants from Senegal, Angola and Bangladesh.

Often, migrants grow tired of waiting for the outcome of their asylum application in Brazil and decide to carry on. During a July 2019 raid at Mohsen Khademi Manesh’s house, for example, Brazilian police found the asylum applications of two Pakistani women who were later detained without documents in the United States.

São Paulo is where the vast majority of human trafficking operations across the continent are coordinated. “Yes, it’s legitimate to say that [traffickers in Brazil] are the big controllers of the route, because they are the ones who charge the immigrants, they are the ones who get paid and eventually send money to the other partners in Central America,” said Milton Fornazari Jr, the director of intelligence of the federal police in São Paulo, the unit that investigates immigrant smuggling and human trafficking. “It is the smugglers here in São Paulo who decide when they will pay their associates.”

According to Nepali authorities consulted by the alliance, the main routes from Nepal to Brazil were discovered by locals who travelled to Latin America nearly two decades ago.

A Kathmandu police chief, speaking anonymously, recalled that a trafficker nicknamed “LB,” originally from Rukum district in western Nepal, was one of the pioneers in identifying and using the routes through Brazil.

“About 15 or 18 years ago, this man helped four or five people from his village to get visas for Mexico. He travelled with them and helped them cross into the United States. The trip showed him how the traffic worked. He understood that, if he could land in a Latin American country like Brazil, groups organised by Bengalis and Pakistanis could take care of the smuggling,” the officer explained.

Apparently, that idea bore fruit. Between 2007 and 2018, the number of undocumented Nepali citizens arrested by US authorities at their borders increased from five to 719.

Business profits: The commerce of human trafficking

Police investigation into another case in Brazil shed light on the scale of the profits made from human trafficking, and the methods traffickers use for moving money and documents smoothly across borders. 

Saifullah Al Mamun, a Bangladeshi citizen who has lived in São Paulo for six years, is one of the biggest human traffickers in the world, according to Brazilian authorities. He was arrested with his partners on 31 October 2019, on charges of operating an “extensive money laundering network” through a system of front men and legal entities. He even used the identities of the migrants he trafficked to forge documents, open bank accounts and evade police surveillance.

“Their criminal activity began and developed here in São Paulo ... the main city where these smugglers carry out their criminal activities,” Fornazari said.

Al Mamun charged immigrants $11,000 for bringing them from Bangladesh to the United States. Of this, $6,000 was just for getting them to Brazil, with a foreign-resident card and other false documentation included.

According to court documents, Al Mamun received payments through front men, in staggered amounts, to bank accounts under the names of other immigrants and through transfers from banks in Brazilian border cities, especially Marechal Cândido Rondon, Cruzeiro do Oeste and Cianorte in the state of Paraná, near Paraguay. The Bangladeshi also used third parties to distribute the money to trafficking cells in other countries.One document, to which CLIP had access, details 222 money transfers from Al Mamun to people in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama and Peru. During a phone call intercepted by police in May 2018, Al Mamun revealed that he was leading a team of twelve people.

Brazilian authorities blocked 42 bank accounts belonging to this group of traffickers, “but we still haven’t been able to identify all the assets, given the extreme professionalism of the money-laundering cell,” Fornazari admitted.

They offer their services mainly to citizens from Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. They used to collaborate with a Brazilian lawyer, arrested in October 2019, who helped them process fraudulent refugee applications, often in the name of immigrants who were not in Brazil.

“This group is extremely well articulated here. It made contact with immigrants through diverse technological tools, via WhatsApp, an application called IMO or via Skype,” Fornazari explained.

Among the documents used by Al Mamun to bring immigrants into the Americas were Bolivian passports and visas, and false Ecuadorian stamps on authentic passports. For this purpose, Al Mamun recruited a secretary working at the Ecuadoran consulate in São Paulo, with whom he met in early 2019. Despite being under police investigation in Brazil, the official was still on the payroll of Ecuador’s ministry of foreign relations last December.

Journalists from this alliance sent several questions to the Ecuadoran foreign ministry and its spokesperson regarding the secretary’s activities, but received no response despite repeated requests.

Al Mamun also obtained false Brazilian foreign-resident cards and used them to get Venezuelan visas, which he then mailed to South Asia. There, other traffickers would stick them into the passports of immigrants who would travel to Venezuela and then cross over to Brazil, passing through the city of Boa Vista, in the state of Roraima. Once there, they would cross to Peru to continue to the United States.

Fraudulent documents were recycled. In some cases, the police were able to verify that, once the immigrants entered Brazil, the traffickers removed the Brazilian visas from their passports and mailed them to Africa, where they would be placed in new passports to bring in new people.

The Al Mamun gang also provided false seaman’s books so that immigrants could enter without needing a Brazilian visa. Among the people who entered the country this way was Nabin Gurung, a Nepali from Kushma, a small town in the west of the country. The 37-year-old, Gurung, spent three months crossing Latin America before arriving in the United States in 2018, only to be arrested and sent back to Nepal.

Back in Kushma, Gurung told a journalist from this project that he had borrowed $44,000 to pay various trafficking groups, money that he still owes. First, he travelled to Delhi, India, to a hotel in the tourist district of Paharganj, and then to Ethiopia, where Nepalis can enter without a visa. From Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, he flew with three other compatriots to São Paulo, where they were received by a Brazilian man.

Speaking off the record, international police experts consulted by CLIP confirmed that one of the main routes used by migrants to enter Brazil is the daily Ethiopian Airways flight between Addis Ababa and São Paulo.

Another Bangladeshi migrant, interviewed in January 2020 at the Colombia-Panama border, said that his $18,000 journey to the United States had been sponsored by his brother. The Bangladeshi migrant had left his country for Delhi, then flown to Addis Ababa and changed to “a very long flight” before landing at the airport of “a big city,” the name of which he could not recall but from where he transferred to another plane bound for Ecuador.

Nabin Gurung said that in Brazil the traffic network was led by Bangladeshis, although his “agent” in that country turned out to be from Nepal. “I had to spend about $500 in Brazil, during the five days I was there. The contacts, whether Nepali or Brazilian, were determined to extort us,” he said.

A large number of the migrants moved by the Al Mamun network flew to São Paulo and then to Rio Branco, in the northern border state of Acre, a flight that takes about four hours. At Acre, taxi drivers who had been provided with the migrants’ names and pictures picked them up and drove them to Peru.

In São Paulo, Al Mamun operated the travel agency BD Tour Ltda, which provided migrants with plane tickets to travel to Rio Branco or other countries. Al Mamun also moved money by way of a currency-exchange contract in his company’s name with the financial institution OM Distribuidora de Títulos e Valores, which facilitated the wiring of money to other partners along the illegal route to the United States.

The financial firm terminated the contract when it discovered that Al Mamun was using the name of a third party to exchange the currency, according to a police document. US authorities, working with the Brazilian federal police, opened a case against Al Mamun and other suspected traffickers. The case is being heard in the federal court of Texas’ Southern District.

One of the defendants is Moktar Hossain, alias Ricky or Carlos, a Bangladeshi national who is believed to have been the network’s contact in Monterrey, Mexico. He provided hotel rooms to migrants and paid for drivers to take them to the Rio Grande, where they crossed into the United States. In August 2019, Hossain, who had been arrested in Houston, pleaded guilty to human trafficking.

Migrants aboard a bus headed from southern Mexico to a city near the US border. Mónica González

Ali Ibrahim, a Somali immigrant detained in Texas in May 2018 by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said he paid about $10,000 during his trip to the country, including $4,500 to a person in Ethiopia for a false Somali passport with a Brazilian visa, which he used to travel to Guarulhos airport in São Paulo. Ibrahim said Abdifatah Hussein Ahmed, the South African trafficker living in Brazil mentioned earlier in this story, welcomed him in his home and held onto his passport for seven days. He also said Hussein Ahmed was the one who put him in contact with the person who received him in Peru.

Brazilian authorities had access to the account statements of Hussein Ahmed and his partner Abdessalem Martani at the MoneyGram remittance company. They found money transfers to the border city of Reynosa in Mexico, Apartadó in Colombia, near the Panama border, and Panama City, as well as parcels sent to Liberia and Santa Cruz, Costa Rican cities on the border with Nicaragua.

Based on official statistics gathered by the partners of “Migrants from Another World” as well as multiple sources consulted, CLIP and its allies estimated that trafficking could be generating revenue worth $212 million to $326 million per year. If these figures are low, it is because they do not include additional payments to coyotes and other local guides. This is often the case, for example, in Colombia and Panama. Nor do they take into account payments to governments, as is required in Nicaragua, to obtain permits.

Moreover, the constant flow of extra-continental migrants through Latin America creates a revenue stream for hotels, transporters, swindlers, traders, robbers and corrupt officials. It is virtually impossible to calculate all the sums involved in this.

Open doors: Latin American countries grant passage to migrants traveling north

In 2008, Rafael Correa, then the Ecuadorean president, introduced an open-door policy which waived visa requirements for virtually all nationalities. However, because his neighbours did not implement similar policies, human trafficking businesses were able not only to continue charging migrants to take them to the United States, but also to use Ecuador as an easy port of arrival.

In view of this abuse, Ecuador gradually closed its borders down. It first restricted 12 nationalities in 2010, and from August 2019 restricted another 12, including Indians, Cameroonians, Angolans, Gambians, Ghanaians and Guineans. Citizens with these nationalities are among those who most frequently take the Latin American route to the United States or Canada, as “Migrants from Another World” ascertained.

Between August 2014 and August 2019, Ecuador’s attorney general’s office received 746 reports of migrant trafficking. In September last year, Ecuadorian police dismantled a trafficking cell comprised of four Yemenis and two Ecuadorians operating in Quito and the canton of Lago Agrio, on the border with Colombia.

The Yemenis coordinated the migrants’ travel, while their local partners obtained fraudulent work visas, residence permits and Ecuadorian identity cards, as well as false work certificates or academic documents. Police confiscated passports issued by Sri Lanka, Sudan and India, among others in their possession.

Sources from international intelligence agencies consulted by CLIP explained that Latin American countries do not usually report the participation of powerful people in these criminal gangs.

One exception could be Colombia. In 2018, authorities arrested the former senator Felix Salcedo Baldión in Bogotá, accusing him of using front companies as well as his own name to issue invitation letters and references to different consulates so that migrants from India, whom he falsely identified as businessmen, could get visas.

Along with Salcedo, Colombian police investigated six other people including Eliana Serrada Bautista, a former Colombian consul in the Dominican Republic, the singer Pavón Lineros and the Ecuadorian citizen Huamán Miranda, considered the leader of the group, with contacts in Peruvian and Honduran trafficking circles.

An intercepted call between Salcedo and Huamán Miranda shows that the former senator suspected that the police were on his tail. “I have to tell you something personally, I can’t send any more letters, they passed me a tip from a friend I have there in the ministry. I helped him get there. I don’t know what happened but my name is squeaking around there. I don’t want to have any problems. If it’s verbal, I’ll do it, whatever I have to leave in that kind of documents I cannot leave, that is evidence against me,” Salcedo said to Huamán.

During the investigation, police used call recordings to document a total of 73 money transfers that Salcedo sent, and 12,087,540 Colombian pesos that he received—about $4,000 in 2018—to pay for documents and visas. The amount is insignificant, but the crime he was accused of is not: using political influence in the ministry of foreign affairs, in its migration offices and in the Colombian consulate in the Dominican Republic, where several visas were issued to Indian citizens.

This journalistic alliance tried to contact Salcedo, but he could not be located and did not respond to messages on Facebook.

In 2019, Salcedo and an accomplice were sentenced to 62 months in prison for the crimes of migrant trafficking, conspiracy to commit a crime and forgery of a private document. Salcedo is under house arrest while an appeal is being processed so that he can serve his full sentence from his home, according to Colombia’s attorney general’s office.

The trafficking of migrants in Colombia, immigration officials said, stopped being such a good business since they re-legalised the entry of those passing through on their way north. The decision was made in 2019, following a shipwreck that killed 21 people, including 10 children, in the Gulf of Urabá near the Panamanian border. The new directive invites migrants to report to immigration offices where their data, fingerprints and iris scans are registered. The information is checked against Interpol databases, and if they do not have a criminal record, they are given safe passage, with five days to leave the country.

Nine out of every ten immigrants who enter Colombia do so by land, mainly through the city of Ipiales, on the border with Ecuador. When Colombian authorities tighten controls in the area, immigrants are forced to seek more complex routes through Brazil to Venezuela, as Wilson Patiño, director of immigration in Medellín, told CLIP.

Migrants cross clandestine trails near Peñas Blancas, Costa Rica, headed towards Nicaragua. César Arroyo / La Voz de Guanacaste

As several migrants informed CLIP and the magazine Semana, there are special buses that provide transportation for migrants undertaking 30-hour, 1,100-kilometre journeys, interrupted only by short breaks. This usually involves going from the border with Ecuador to Medellín, or directly to Necoclí, in the Gulf of Urabá, very close to the border with Panama. The following stretch to Panama is “complete death,” as Samuel Eyong Beyong, a Cameroonian we interviewed last February in the town of Choluteca in Honduras, put it.

“I was robbed,” Beyong, who travelled with his pregnant wife and two small children, told us. “They took $1,200 from me. They are a mafia of thieves. They stripped everyone naked to find the money. We were lucky in that jungle because they only took the money. In some other groups they raped the girls and even shot someone.”

This alliance has established that at least 110 migrants have died on the road-less border between Colombia and Panama. Migrants are forced to cross the jungle by foot and risk crossing rivers and streams on fragile boats. Among those killed in the Darién were three children of Mifi Mulasa, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in January 2019. In the middle of the night, traffickers put her and her family on a boat driven by drunken pilots, with no life jackets. The boat’s hull broke and Mulasa lost her husband, Vita Mbengo, and her children Desimi, aged 7, Exauce, aged 5, and Emanuel, aged 2. The only survivor besides her was her daughter Sonjisa Mbengo La Joie.

“The groups dedicated to assaulting people are either more careful now or have reduced this illegal activity,” said Leonardo Altamiranda, an officer of the ombudsman’s office in the Colombian Darién area. “This year, the Autodefensas Gaitanistas clan distributed a pamphlet in Capurganá”—another town on the Gulf of Urabá where migrants stop—“warning that anyone who attempts to attack migrants, steals from them or rapes their women, will be killed.”

In Capurganá, the last town on the Gulf of Urabá from where migrants depart on foot to cross the Darien jungle into Panama, several sources told Semana and CLIP that the Autodefensas Gaitanistas clan gave a community association the responsibility of taking the people to Panama, and authorised them to charge $70 per head. If there are complaints, however, these guides pay with their lives.

Central America: well-organized groups

Corruption in the middle management of police agencies and border guards allows these groups to continue operating with impunity. In Costa Rica, in late 2018, the police broke up a gang of traffickers, including five immigration officials and one law enforcement officer. Last year, Costa Rican authorities arrested 38 people involved in a trafficking ring. By mid 2019, several public servants were being investigated for their possible involvement in the business, the Costa Rican prosecutor Eugenia Salazar told CLIP.

In Costa Rica, the Centro de Atención Temporal para Migrantes (Catem) takes data from travellers and gives them a temporary transit permit to cross the country. Many do this on their own using public transportation. However, authorities know that Catem centres are targeted by the trafficking networks because they guarantee a large flow of potential customers. They even offer “free” rides to migrants in exchange for recruiting others.

Several migrants interviewed in the United States as part of the investigation against Abdessalem Martani stated that, in Costa Rica, their main contact was a woman nicknamed Mama Africa. This is how they knew Ana Yancy López Martínez, a woman of Nicaraguan origin who has lived in La Cruz, Costa Rica, near the Nicaraguan border, for 12 years. She was arrested by local police in June 2019, along with 37 other suspected members of the local human trafficking network, including an official from the country’s health ministry.

Ana Yansy López Martínez, 48 years olf, lives in La Cruz, Costa Rica. Migrants and smugglers call her ‘Mama Africa’. She is wearing an electronic tagging in her left foot, as she waits to be presented to a court for human smuggling in her house in the Guanacaste province in Costa Rica. César Arroyo /La Voz de Guanacaste

The journalistic alliance found that Mama Africa is a name generally given to local contacts that offer accommodation to travellers or lend their bank accounts so that their families can send them the money required by coyotes for each leg of the trip. It is an easy name for anyone to remember. Another Mama Africa was arrested in Colombia, near the border. Other sources in Colombia said that these are poor women who start out by providing accommodation and support to travellers, and soon end up entangled in the webs of criminals.

A 2016 report by Honduran police intelligence provides further insight into how local cells function in Central America. It exposes the structure of a trafficking network operating in Guatemala, with allies in Honduras, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. They received immigrants mostly from Brazil.

The group was led by the Peruvian Luis Leonardo Mejía Pasapera, currently imprisoned in Guatemala. Mejía and 11 other gang members deposited in their accounts a total of 30,244,437 quetzals—equivalent to about $4 million in 2016—that came from trafficking migrants over a seven-year period.

CLIP tried to talk to Pasapera about these events through his lawyer, but he refused to discuss the matter.

The conversations intercepted from this Guatemalan group reveal that he charged between $1,750 and $2,200 per person to take them from Panama to Tapachula in Mexico. Migrants were assigned a number which was written down on a piece of paper so that accomplices in each country could identify them.

Migrants from India, the police report says, are charged more as they are considered “to pay well.” A Honduran trafficker named Manuel Antonio Pérez Sánchez said in a call in 2016 that Indians “are not taken by anyone for less than $10,000.”

The investigation revealed that this group had recruited Honduran immigration officials at the Choluteca station who pretended to detain the immigrants and then transported them on their own to Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. In exchange, the officials asked for 1,500 lempiras per person—about $66 at the time.

One member of the gang was an immigration inspector in Tegucigalpa named Sierra Landa, aka Lieutenant Sierra. He was paid to approve safe-passage permits that allowed immigrants to leave Honduras without problems, according to the judicial documents reviewed by CLIP. Lieutenant Sierra was particularly interested in expediting the processing of migrants from Nepal, Tunisia, Pakistan and Somalia. According to the report, Sierra was known by the nickname “twenty per head,” because he allegedly charged each person $20 to deliver the permit within six hours. The official was dismissed from the Honduran National Institute of Migration in March 2016, while authorities were investigating him.

According to an intercepted call made during the investigation, the network allegedly had an accomplice at the hostel of the organisation La Casa del Migrante in Guatemala, to whom they paid $5 for each person they housed without recording them in their logs. We asked Carlos López, administrator of La Casa del Migrante, if he knew of this situation. He insisted that no one from that organisation received money from the traffickers. “A couple of years ago, several people showed up asking if they could pay us to take care of immigrants, but we told them that we could not enter into negotiations of that kind, because we would become supporters of those networks. Nobody here was paid or bribed,” he said.

López said that, for a few months, they accepted migrants sent to them by immigration authorities, but they stopped doing so because they suspected that these movements were part of a human trafficking network. “We were being used by those networks, which are entrenched in the immigration authorities. We decided to tell them we could not do it anymore,” he said.

Mexico, land of kidnapping

Mexico is the last stop before reaching the United States, but far from the easiest. Under pressure from US President Donald Trump, the Mexican authorities are now cracking down on migrants passing through their territory en route to the United States, thus pushing these migrants to seek riskier routes.

A protest organised by migrants at the Siglo XXI migration camp in Tapachula, Chiapas state, southern Mexico. Alberto Pradilla / Animal Político

This was evident in the story of the Yemeni immigrant Mohamed Salah Ali Salah, who was arrested in the United States last year after traveling from Brazil with a trafficking network led by Abdifatah Hussein Ahmed. Salah told US authorities that, in March 2019, when he arrived in Reynosa, Mexico, he was arrested along with another group of people, beaten by police and asked for money. Then they were turned over to the local mafia, which demanded $2,000 to take them to McAllen, Texas, another $3,000 to go to Houston and $3,000 more to got to Canada.

Brazilian federal police suspect that the network’s leaders in Brazil knew about Salah’s kidnapping and extortion. Around the same time that Salah had been kidnapped, the police had intercepted phone conversations between the leaders of the Abdifatah Hussein Ahmed network, where they were heard discussing unplanned payments for a group of migrants who could continue their journey from Reynosa to McAllen, and onwards to Houston and Canada.

“The testimonies and modus operandi of the kidnapping fit perfectly with the dialogue [between the traffickers], there is no reasonable explanation for requiring more money at the U.S.-Mexico border, other than the payment of a ransom,” the investigators wrote.

“We have already seen in other investigations that human traffickers sometimes end up associating with drug cartels in Mexico, and eventually participate in kidnappings,” Fornazari explained.

The group led by Hussein Ahmed had a contact in McAllen, Texas, who was identified only as “Karim,” an Algerian citizen. He accompanied the migrants on their journey to Houston. According to the traffickers’ own statements, Karim had been a captain in the Algerian army between 1991 and 2005.

Both local and foreign coyotes operate in Mexico. Migrant stories and police documents contain the names of traffickers from India, Nepal, Syria, Pakistan and Lebanon, among other nationalities that reside on Mexican soil.

Tapachula, near the border with Guatemala, is considered the centre of operations for local traffickers. There, counterfeit resident cards can be obtained for $500. A team that participated in this investigation was able to see one such document, acquired by a Cuban citizen who was interviewed at a local hotel. Its low quality made it unsuitable for passing through the checkpoints installed outside the municipality.

Tonatiuh Guillén, a former commissioner of the Mexican National Institute of Migration—INM is the official agency that monitors and supervises migration in Mexico—said that another way to enter Mexico is by requesting work permits from the countries of origin. These are supported by ghost companies in collusion with public officials in Mexico. Guillén acknowledged the existence of officials linked to corruption networks. He said that during the seven months of his mandate, between December 2018 and June 2019, nearly five hundred INM officials were dismissed from their posts.

Josep Pele, a migrant journalist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who collaborated with this alliance, arrived in Mexico in July 2019. He said he had to pay $100 for each member of his family to stay at Siglo XXI migrant station in Tapachula.

Josep Pele, a Congolese journalist and migrant, made the perilous trip across the Americas with his family. Mónica González

In Mexico, coyotes often go back on their word, refusing to take migrants as far as they promised, as happened to Harpreet Singh (name changed). He is a 23-year-old man from Behrampur, in northern India’s Punjab state. Last year, he paid about $30,000 to travel to the United States through Brazil. His destination was New York, he told a reporter in India who collaborated with this investigation.

Shortly after arriving in Mexico, police arrested him and took him to Tapachula, where he was forbidden to leave the city. He stayed there for a month and a half until he got tired of waiting for help from the coyote he had initially paid, a man of Indian origin known as “Max,” who also ran the establishment where Singh stayed—Hakeemi Hostal near Tapachula’s central park.

Singh decided to look for another coyote, a Pakistani named “Ali,” whom he paid just over $2,000 to take him to northern Mexico. “We were sent by car. They made us change vehicles about 50 times,” he said.

In Veracruz, his group was intercepted by the authorities. They took him to the Acayucán Migratory Station, where he stayed for a month and a half, until he was deported along with 310 immigrants from India in October 2019, in an unprecedented action by the Mexican authorities that revealed the growing pressure exerted on them by the US government to prevent migrants from entering its territory.

Stepping on US soil also offers no guarantees, not only because of the likelihood of being stopped by border patrol, but also because of the physical danger people face when abandoned by coyotes in the desert along the US-Mexico border.

In June 2019, a six-year-old girl from India, Gurupreet Kaur, died of heat stroke in the Arizona desert after crossing the border. The girl was travelling with her mother and three other people. The coyotes forced them out of the car in a remote area west of Lukeville on a Wednesday in the middle of summer, when the temperature exceeded 42 degrees Celsius.

Gurupreet, originally from the village of Hasanpur in northern India, was trying to reunite with her father, who had lived in New York for some years and had an asylum claim pending for him and his family. Instead, she died in the Sonoran desert, while her mother was trying to find water.

This is how thousands of migrants, including girls like Gurupreet, are being squeezed by human traffickers in Latin America. The lack of intergovernmental coordination and the constant changes in legislation in different countries forces more people to seek clandestine routes run by traffickers and coyotes.

“Entire families are passing before our eyes. Every country has laws that, instead of encouraging the transit of migrants, hinder it and cause death,” said Father Aurelio Moncada Cardona, a priest of the Nuestra Señora del Carmen parish in Capurganá, Colombia, a town near the Darién jungle through which migrants pass clandestinely into Panama.

The journey is made harder by corruption and the power of drug trafficking mafias in countries such as Colombia and Mexico, which take advantage of the migrants to move drugs and also to kidnap and exploit people. In addition, the economy of some border towns ends up revolving around migrants paying for services, transportation, accommodation and food.

Police records show how easily money from this business flows through legitimate channels such as banks, travel agencies and remittance companies. No one is able account for the profits made by the trafficking cells.

This is in stark contrast to the increasing restrictions on migrants. Indeed, it is easier for a criminal to get rich exploiting migrants than for a migrant to find a second chance in another country.

“What surprised us most was the greed, the irresponsibility of these traffickers, who really care little about people’s lives. We heard phone calls from members of the criminal organisation making fun of the people who died on the way,” Fornazari said.

A small mercy is that thanks to tools such as WhatsApp, Messenger and Skype, migrants have a direct line of contact with each other so that they can warn those behind them of the perils that lie ahead. They no longer depend on paper and pencil to write letters that perhaps no one will get, like the one Faiz Ahmed Jewel, a Bangladeshi migrant, left for his brother five years ago on the wall of an old school in Puente América, a Colombian border town at the entrance of the Darién jungle.

“When I made this decision, I didn’t know it was a risky trip. Don’t believe the coyotes, they are cheats and liars. They don’t tell you the real story of this trip. If you knew the truth, you would never decide to go to America, never, never.”

The Caravan is serialising “Migrants from Another World.” The other parts of the series appear here.

Migrants from Another World is a transnational and collaborative investigation from the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism (CLIP in Spanish), Occrp, Animal Político (Mexico) and Mexican regional media such as Chiapas Paralelo and Voz Alterna from Red Periodistas de a Pie; Univision Noticias Digital (United States), Revista Factum (El Salvador); La Voz de Guanacaste (Costa Rica); Profissão Réporter from TV Globo (Brazil); La Prensa (Panama); Revista Semana (Colombia); El Universo (Ecuador); Efecto Cocuyo (Venezuela); and Anfibia/Cosecha Roja (Argentina). Also, Confluence Media (India), Record Nepal (Nepal), The Museba Project (Cameroon) and Bellingcat (United Kingdom). This project received special support from Fundación Avina and Seattle International Foundation.