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Car bomb kills at least 18 in Syrian town held by Turkey
BEIRUT (AP) — A car bomb exploded Saturday in a northern Syrian town controlled by Turkey-backed opposition fighters, killing at least 18 people and wounding several others, Syrian opposition activists and Turkey’s Defense Ministry said.
Northern Syria has been hit by several explosions that have killed and wounded scores of people over the past month. That’s since Turkey began a military operation against Kurdish fighters in the wake of President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the bulk of American troops out of northern Syria.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that 19 people, including 13 civilians, were killed Saturday in the town of al-Bab in Aleppo province. The Aleppo Media Center, an activist collective, said 15 people were killed in the blast in a busy part of town near a bus station.
Turkey’s Defense Ministry said the blast killed 18 people and blamed the main Kurdish militia, known as the People’s Protection Units.
It is not uncommon for reports to give differing casualty figures in the immediate aftermath of this kind of attack.
No one claimed responsibility for the attack.
A video posted online by Albab City, an activist collective, showed several vehicles on fire with black smoke billowing from a wide street with shops on both sides. Inside the bus station, several white minibuses appear damaged.
“It looks like doomsday. May God help us,” a man could be heard saying as five young men carried a wounded person away. At least two bloodied and wounded men could be seen rushed away on motorcycles.
Turkey-backed opposition fighters took control of parts of Aleppo province, including the towns of al-Bab and Afrin, in previous military offensives in 2016 and 2018, respectively.
The past month’s attacks have come amid an expanding Turkish invasion of into northeast Syria against Kurdish-held towns and villages along a stretch of the border.
Three car bombs went off Monday in the northeastern Syrian town of Qamishli near the border with Turkey, killing at least six people, according to activists and Syria’s state news agency SANA.
On Nov. 2, a car bomb killed 13 people in the northern Syrian town of Tal Abyad, which is also held by Turkey-backed opposition fighters.
The Turkish offensive has aimed at pushing Kurdish fighters away from the border. Those Kurdish fighters had been key U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State group. Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish fighters terrorists linked to a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.
Turkish forces have consolidated control over a stretch of the border running 120 kilometers (70 miles) wide and 30 kilometers (20 miles) deep into Syria. They have also kept up pressure outside that area, fighting with Kurdish forces on the edges.
Syrian government forces and their Russian allies have moved into other parts of the border under a Russian-Turkish deal.
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Former Sri Lankan defense chief wins presidential vote
By EMILY SCHMALL and KRISHAN FRANCIS | Sun, November 17, 2019 06:44 EST
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former defense official revered by Sri Lanka’s ethnic majority for his role in ending a bloody civil war but feared by minorities for his brutal approach, registered a comfortable victory Sunday in the nation’s presidential election.
Elections chief Mahinda Deshapriya announced the official results that Rajapaksa won more than 6.9 million votes in Saturday’s election, 1.3 million votes more than his closest rival, Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa.
Rajapaksa’s percentage of the vote was 52.25%, well above the 50% plus one vote needed for victory.
Premadasa conceded defeat to Rajapaksa, saying he would honor the decision of the people.
Rajapaksa, the campaign front-runner and former defense secretary under his brother, ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, pledged to restore security to the Indian Ocean island nation still recovering from Islamic State-inspired attacks last Easter that killed 269 people.
The results showcased deep ethnic and religious polarization in a country that has seen decades of conflicts and bloodshed since independence from the British in 1948. Minority Tamils and Muslims voted overwhelmingly for Premadasa, largely to stop a Rajapaksa victory.
President-elect Rajapaksa appeared to try to allay minority skepticism in his speech after the official announcement of results.
“I have fully understood that I am the president of all citizens not only of those who voted for me but also all those who voted against me,” he said.
“Therefore I am well aware that I am bound to serve every Sri Lankan irrespective of race or religion.”
Rajapaksa’s party headquarters in Colombo erupted with applause when the commissioner delivered the result on live TV.
His victory marks the return of a family ousted from power in 2015 elections amid constant reports of nepotism, skimming off development deals with China and alleged human rights violations during the end of the decades-long war with the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009. The election also mirrors the global trend of populist strongmen appealing to disgruntled majorities amid rising ethno-nationalism.
Flanked by Buddhist monks at campaign events, Rajapaksa focused his message on Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhala Buddhist population, who comprise about 70% of the island’s citizens. The second-largest group are ethnic Tamil Hindus at 12.6%, while 10% are Muslims and 8% are Christian.
He accepted support from Buddhist nationalist clerics who demanded the resignation of Muslim Cabinet members and governors they said were interfering with the investigation of the Easter attacks.
The Muslim politicians temporarily stepped aside.
The campaign said Rajapaksa’s swearing-in ceremony would take place at Anuradhapura, a city about 200 kilometers (124 miles) from Colombo and the seat of the first Sinhalese kingdom known for a sacred tree that is said to be the southern branch of the Bodhi tree in India under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment.
The result reflected voting along ethnic lines, showing “a badly polarized country” that will embolden right-wing Buddhist clerics, said Kusal Perera, a political analyst and independent journalist.
“A Sinhala Buddhist theocratic state has been given a people’s mandate now,” he said.
Premadasa swept the majority Tamil and Muslim districts in the country’s north and east, winning as much as 80% of the vote. In majority ethnic Sinhala areas, Gotabaya secured around 60%.
Sinhala Buddhists votes usually don’t vote as a bloc, unlike Sri Lankan minorities who have supported whatever party espoused policies comparatively favorable to them.
Rajapaksa’s victory will also be a blow to the post-civil war reconciliation process and truth-seeking on alleged wartime abuses by both government troops and the Tamil Tiger rebels. In the lead up to the election, Rajapaksa said that he would not honor a United Nations human rights resolution to investigate alleged abuses.
“He has won the war, but Sri Lanka is yet to win the peace and 10 years after, this is how the north and east reacts to the war victor,” said M.A Sumanthiran, lawmaker and spokesman for Tamil National Alliance, the country’s main Tamil party.
Rajapaksa pledged to appoint as prime minister his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was briefly installed as prime minister last year, when outgoing President Maithripala Sirisena fired the sitting prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, over political differences. The Supreme Court ruled Sirisena had acted unconstitutionally, and restored Wickremsinghe to power.
Rajapaksa has also promised to release military personnel detained for running an abduction ring for money in the pretext of counterterrorism, leading some to fear that the ethnic tensions that fueled the Tamil struggle for an independent state will only grow during his administration.
During the war that ended in 2009, Rajapaksa was accused of persecuting critics and overseeing squads that whisked away journalists, activists and Tamil civilians suspected of links to the Tamil Tigers. Some were tortured and released, while others simply disappeared.
The Rajapaksa brothers are also accused of condoning rape and extrajudicial killings and deliberately targeting civilians and hospitals during the war. They deny the allegations.
The Rajapaksas did not lift emergency law even after the war ended, curtailing civil and media freedoms. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government accepted Chinese loans for white elephant projects in the family’s home district of Hambantota, including to build a big commercial airport that is only being sparsely used.
Battling one of Asia’s highest debt-to-GDP ratios, Wickremesinghe’s government signed in 2017 a 99-year lease of the Chinese-built Hambantota port to a Chinese company, fueling public consternation over the loss of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. The outgoing government also re-established ties with neighboring India and the United States, both of whom have large stakes in Sri Lanka as a buffer against China.
Even though the Cabinet will not immediately dissolve once a president changes, Sri Lanka’s Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera on Sunday resigned to allow Gotabaya Rajapaksa to appoint a new minister.
Rajapaksa will inherit a tourism-dependent economy still recovering from the blasts, the first attack in Sri Lankan history targeting foreigners.
Associated Press writers Bharatha Mallawarachi and Shonal Ganguly contributed to this report.
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Florida judge draws town’s wrath over school violence case
By BOBBY CAINA CALVAN | Sat, November 16, 2019 03:13 EST
MACCLENNY, Fla. (AP) — Anxieties multiplied quickly across Baker County, a mostly rural community of 28,000 in northern Florida, when news spread that a 15-year-old had planned a massacre at the county’s only high school.
“MAKE SURE THE TEACHERS ARE DEAD,” he ranted in a notebook. “Then rinse repeat.”
When the sophomore shared his six-page “School Shooting Plan” with a classmate in early September, it set in motion what authorities called a textbook response to averting another Parkland school shooting, which took the lives of 14 students and three school staffers last year.
Within minutes, the student was in custody. By most accounts, parents felt reassured by the swift action of school officials and law enforcement.
But unease resurfaced last month when a judge dismissed second-degree felony charges against the boy and released him back into the community west of Jacksonville. Thursday’s shooting at a California high school — which left three students dead, including the 16-year-old gunman — only deepened their worries.
In a place where churches outnumber gas stations and traffic lights, some residents expressed compassion for the teenager but reserved less mercy for the judge, who they say failed their community and the boy she spared.
“We have a sense of safety built into this community. We trust each other, and when I drop my kids off at school, I have a feeling they’re going to be safe,” said Macclenny resident Tracy Lamb, whose 15-year-old daughter attends the high school along with about 1,400 other students.
“Our judicial system is dropping the ball. It’s failed us, and the system has failed him. I want this child to receive help,” she said. “Everybody’s left wondering now about what’s going to happen to this particular kid.”
After the Parkland shooting that killed 17, Florida lawmakers acted quickly to beef up security and improve safety across the state’s 4,300 public schools. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act widened the authority of schools and law enforcement to act against any threat to campus safety.
To authorities and school officials, one provision in the law seemed clear: Anyone who “makes, posts, or transmits” a threat of mass shooting “in any manner that would allow another person to view the threat” has committed a crime.
Judge Gloria R. Walker saw things differently and dismissed the case because she said prosecutors could not prove the threat had been transmitted as described in the law.
Walker didn’t return calls requesting comment.
Members of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission expressed exasperation last month when Baker County Sheriff’s Maj. Randy Crews described the incident.
That was the first time many in the county heard of the judge’s decision, and it spawned immediate outrage. Community leaders urged neighbors to bombard the judge with emails and phone calls to voice their displeasure.
“We count on the laws to keep us safe. Are there laws to do that? We thought so, and then recently we had a judge who said that the law wasn’t good enough to keep us safe, or to get this child some help,” said Angela Callahan, a middle school teacher, union officer and mother with a son attending Baker County High School.
The boy’s plan described killing teachers and fellow students in chilling detail. To maximize the carnage, he’d deploy an arsenal of knives and guns at a pep rally or some other high-traffic venue. He calculated he’d have nine minutes before squad cars and medics could reach the scene. He wouldn’t be acting alone, he hoped, having recruited at least three schoolmates who, like him, were “100% down that they might die that day.”
Investigators said the teen acknowledged writing the plan but he denied any intention of carrying it out.
The Associated Press is not naming the student because he is a juvenile.
Florida law allows authorities to hold anyone deemed a threat to themselves and others for up to 72 hours. From July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018, authorities took temporary custody of 36,078 children under the Baker Act — up by 83% from a decade earlier. Many of those cases were initiated while a child was at school.
The Stoneman Douglas commission has called for greater state funding for mental health programs for children and wants judges to offer mental health services to children who get into trouble with the law.
That’s what folks across Baker County say should have happened when the 15-year-old appeared before Judge Walker.
The Rev. Tommy Richardson, who serves as the chaplain for the sheriff’s department, said his community is a place of forgiveness.
“I don’t think none of the community ever expected him to get life in prison,” Richardson said. “We’re a community that will help him, pray for him.”
Baker County Schools Superintendent Sherrie Raulerson declined to discuss the case but reassured residents that protocols are in place to keep students safe.
Still, concerns linger.
Courtney Fiser, whose daughter attends the high school, said she is relieved the boy hasn’t returned to school but remains troubled by the judge’s decision.
“We work so hard to protect our children, and we have someone who is not there helping us,” she said.
Daughter Lauren, a cheerleader, described the unease on campus.
When the school intercom blared a code yellow a few weeks ago, nerves remained frayed until school officials declared it a false alarm.
“Every time the doorknob makes a noise, we’re scared,” she said. “Now, It’s just an ongoing fear.”
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US, S Korea postpone joint exercise criticized by N Korea
Sun, November 17, 2019 12:11 EST
BANGKOK (AP) — The United States and South Korea are postponing a joint military air exercise that North Korea has criticized as provocative.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and his South Korean counterpart made the announcement Sunday in Bangkok, where they were attending an Asia defense ministers conference.
As recently as Friday, when Esper was in Seoul to consult with South Korean officials, there was no word on postponing the military air exercise, which had been called Vigilant Ace.
Seoul and Washington had scaled back the exercise recently and changed the name, but North Korea strongly objected, calling it evidence of a lack of interest in improving relations.
The North has demanded accommodations before it will agree to resume nuclear negotiations.
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Rebuffed by US, migrants dwell in lawless Mexican state
By MARIA VERZA | Sun, November 17, 2019 12:36 EST
NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico (AP) — The gangsters trawling Nuevo Laredo know just what they’re looking for: men and women missing their shoelaces.
Those are migrants who made it to the United States to ask for asylum, only to be taken into custody and stripped of their laces — to keep them from hurting themselves. And then they were thrust into danger, sent back to the lawless border state of Tamaulipas.
In years past, migrants moved quickly through this violent territory on their way to the United States. Now, due to Trump administration policies, they remain there for weeks and sometimes months as they await their U.S. court dates, often in the hands of the gangsters who hold the area in a vise-like grip.
Here, migrants in limbo are prey, and a boon to smugglers.
This story is part of an occasional series, “Outsourcing Migrants,” produced with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
They recount harrowing stories of robbery, extortion by criminals and crooked officials, and kidnappings by competing cartels. They tell of being captured by armed bandits who demand a ransom: They can pay for illegal passage to the border, or merely for their freedom, but either way they must pay.
And then they might be nabbed again by another gang. Or, desperate not to return to the homes they fled in the first place, they might willingly pay smugglers again.
That’s what a 32-year-old Honduran accountant was contemplating. She had twice paid coyotes to help her cross into the U.S. only to be returned. Most recently, in September, she was sent back across the bridge from Brownsville to Matamoros.
Now, biding her time with her daughter in the city of Monterrey, she said one thing is for sure: “We are a little gold mine for the criminals.”
Tamaulipas used to be a crossroads. Its dangers are well known; the U.S. has warned its citizens to stay away, assigning it the same alert level as war-torn countries such as Afghanistan and Syria.
Whenever possible, migrants heading north immediately crossed the river to Texas or presented themselves at a U.S. port of entry to file an asylum claim, which would allow them to stay in the U.S. while their cases played out.
But the U.S. has set limits on applicants for asylum, slowing the number to a mere trickle, while the policy known colloquially as “Remain in Mexico,” has meant the return of more than 55,000 asylum-seekers to the country while their requests meander through backlogged courts.
The Mexican government is ill-prepared to handle the influx along the border, especially in Tamaulipas, where it has been arranging bus rides south to the relative safety of the northern city of Monterrey or all the way to the Guatemala border, citing security concerns — tacit acknowledgement, some analysts say, of the state of anarchy.
The gangs have adapted quickly to the new reality of masses of vulnerable people parking in the heart of their fiefdom, experts say, treating the travelers, often families with young children, like ATMs, ramping up kidnapping, extortion, and illegal crossings to extract money and fuel their empires.
“There’s probably nothing worse you could do in terms of overall security along the border,” said Jeremy Slack, a geographer at the University of Texas at El Paso who studies the border region, crime and migration in Mexico. “I mean, it really is like the nightmare scenario.”
Yohan, a 31-year-old Nicaraguan security guard, trudged back across the border bridge from Laredo, Texas, in July with his wife and two children in tow, clutching a plastic case full of documents including one with a court date to return and make their asylum claim to a U.S. immigration judge two months later.
Penniless, with little more than a cellphone, the family was entering Nuevo Laredo, dominated by the Northeast cartel, a splinter of the brutal and once-powerful Zetas gang.
This is the way he tells the story now, in an interview at a nonprofit in Monterrey that provides the family with shelter and food:
The plan was to call and ask help from the only people they knew in the area — the “coyotes,” or people smugglers, who earlier helped them cross the Rio Grande on an inflatable raft and had treated them well. Only that was in Ciudad Miguel Aleman, about a two-hour drive south parallel to the river.
On their way to the bus station, two strange men stopped Yohan while another group grabbed his loved ones. At least one of them had a gun. They were hustled into a van, relieved of their belongings and told they had a choice: Pay thousands of dollars for their freedom, or for another illegal crossing.
All along the border, there have abuses and crimes against migrants by Mexican organized crime, which has long profited off them. But Tamaulipas is especially troubling. It is both the location of most illegal crossings, and the state where the United States has returned the most asylum seekers — 20,700 through Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros as of early October.
The Mexico City-based Institute for Women in Migration, which tracks kidnappings of migrants and asylum-seekers, has documented 212 abductions in the state from mid-July through Oct. 15. And that’s surely an undercount.
Of the documented kidnappings in Tamaulipas, 197 occurred in Nuevo Laredo, a city of about 500,000 whose international bridges fuel the trade economy.
Yohan’s family was among them.
They had left Esteli in northwestern Nicaragua over three months earlier after armed, government-aligned civilian militias learned that Yohan had witnessed the killing of a government opponent, he said. They followed him and painted death threats on the walls of their home.
He is identified only by his middle name, because he and others Quote: d in this story fear for their lives and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Yohan borrowed against his mother’s house to pay smugglers $18,000 for the family’s trip. But he had not bargained on the closed door at the border, or the ordeal in Nuevo Laredo, and his bankroll was depleted.
The men who grabbed the family “told us they were from the cartel, that they were not kidnappers, that their job was to get people across and that they would take us to the smuggler to explain,” Yohan said. Then they connected a cable to his cellphone to download its contents.
Yohan’s first instinct was to give the passphrase that his previous smugglers used to identify “their” migrants. “‘That doesn’t mean anything to us,’ one of them told me,” Yohan said — this lot belonged to a different group.
Gangs in Tamaulipas have fragmented in the last decade and now cartel cells there operate on a franchise model, with contacts across Mexico and Central America, said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a political scientist specializing in organized crime, immigration, border security and human trafficking at George Mason University.
“They are contractors. They provide a service, control the territory, operate safe houses and charge for all that,” she said.
Yohan’s family was held in a series of what appeared to be private homes or offices, along with a family from El Salvador, two Cubans and two Mexicans. Everyone slept on the floor.
One captor, a 16-year-old, told him, “We have 15 smugglers, the cartel brings the people to us here and we take them across paying the cartel for the river crossing.”
The gang had been hiring lately: “Since the United States is deporting so many through here, we are capturing them and that has meant more work,” the teen told him. “We’re saturated.”
Initially the captors demanded $16,000. They gave Yohan and his wife a list of names and accounts; relatives were supposed to deposit $450 into each one without using companies seen as traceable by authorities.
But they were able to scrape together just $3,000, and that angered the gangsters.
“I’m going to give you to the cartel,” one shouted.
Then Yohan’s son came down with the mumps. The family got the captors to provide a bit of extra milk for him in exchange for his daughter’s little gold ring, but the boy wasn’t getting better and they abruptly released the family.
“They told us that the cartel doesn’t allow them to hold sick children,” Yohan said.
This is a matter of business, not humanity: A dead child could bring attention from the media, and then authorities, says George Mason’s Correa-Cabrera.
After 14 days captive and before leaving the safe house, Yohan was given a code phrase: “We already passed through the office, checking.” Only hours later they would need to use it. Arriving at the bus station, a group of strange men tried to grab them. Yohan spoke the six words in Spanish, and they were let go, and they went on to Monterrey.
On Sept. 22, Yohan’s family returned to Nuevo Laredo for their court date, bringing with them a report on the family’s kidnapping. Though U.S. law allows at-risk people to stay, they were sent back to the parking lot of a Mexican immigration facility, surrounded by seedy cantinas and watching eyes.
Mexican authorities organized bus transportation for those who wanted to return to their home countries. The family did not intend to go back to Nicaragua, so they asked the driver to leave them in Monterrey where they would await the next hearing.
After they were under way, the driver demanded $200. They couldn’t pay, so he dumped them about 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the city at 1 a.m., along with four others.
Unlike other border cities such as Tijuana or Ciudad Juarez, migrants and asylum seekers are rarely seen on the streets in Nuevo Laredo. Fear keeps them in hiding, and safety isn’t a sure thing even inside shelters. This summer pastor Aarón Méndez was abducted from the shelter he ran. He has not been heard from since.
Nor is it safe on the streets going to and from the station. A couple of months after Méndez disappeared, gunmen intercepted some people who were helping migrants make those trips; those being transported were taken away, and the helpers were told they would be killed if they persisted.
Kennji Kizuka, a researcher for New York-based Human Rights First, told of one woman who crossed into the U.S. for a hearing date, where she had to surrender her phone. While she was incommunicado for hours, calls were placed to relatives in the United States claiming she had been kidnapped and aggressively demanding a ransom.
“It’s clear that they have a very sophisticated system to target people,” Kizuka said.
In another instance, Kizuka said, cartel members were in the Nuevo Laredo office of Mexican migration, openly abducting asylum seekers who had just been sent back from the United States.
One woman hid in the bathroom with her daughter and called a local pastor for help; he tried to drive them away, but they were blocked by cartel members blocks way. The two were taken from the car and held by the gangsters, though they eventually were released unharmed.
A spokesperson for the Mexican foreign affairs secretary declined comment on allegations that Mexico cannot guarantee safety for immigrants returned from U.S.
U.S. Border Patrol officials said recently they are continuing to send asylum seekers back over the border, and that includes Nuevo Laredo. The number of people returned there has been reduced recently, but that was related to a decrease in migrants arriving at the border — and not violence in Tamaulipas.
In an interview, Brian Hastings, Border Patrol chief of law enforcement operations, told AP that officials didn’t see a “threat to that population” in Tamaulipas and “there was basically a small war between the cartel and the state police” there.
But the numbers indicate the danger is real.
As of August, Human Rights First had tabulated 100 violent crimes against returnees. By October, after it rolled out to Tamaulipas, that had more than tripled to 340. Most involved kidnapping and extortion. Kizuka said the danger is even greater than the numbers reflect because they are based solely on accounts his organization or reporters have been able to document.
Of dozens of people interviewed by AP who said they had been victimized in Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, Matamoros and Monterrey, just one had filed a police report.
Kidnappings of migrants are not a new phenomenon. According to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, in just six months in 2009 nearly 10,000 migrants were abducted while passing through the country.
Back then the cartels were splintering amid a government policy targeting their top bosses, leading them to fight among themselves in the people-smuggling business to fill two needs: money and labor. Kidnapped migrants generally were told they could avoid being killed by either paying ransom or working for the cartel.
Tamaulipas became a bloody emblem of the problem in 2010 when 72 migrants were found slain at a ranch in San Fernando, and a year later when the bodies of 193 migrants were found in the same area in clandestine mass graves — apparently murdered by a cartel to damage a rival’s people-smuggling business.
Raymundo Ramos of the Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee said gangs today are more interested in squeezing cash from migrants: “They have to recover a lot of the money lost in those wars.”
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has acknowledged that another massacre or escalation of violence is a major fear and has deployed more than 25,000 troops and National Guard agents to police people-trafficking in border regions and along smuggling routes. But all the accounts of violence in this account took place after that deployment.
Reynosa, a factory city of about 650,000, is the largest in Tamaulipas and home to some of the worst drug war violence. It’s also a key part of the migratory route and one of the busiest crossing points along with Ciudad Miguel Aleman.
Disputed by rival gangs, Reynosa has the feel of a place with invisible fences demarcating their territories, and numerous migrants said they had to pay to get past checkpoints at the main entrances to the city.
Lawyer and human rights worker Fortino López Balcázar said the gangs first took control of the river, attacking and beating migrants. Then they started grabbing them from bus stations, and then from the streets.
The airport is also tightly controlled.
A 46-year-old teacher from Havana recalled arriving with her 16-year-old son Aug. 13 by plane from Mexico City with the phone number for a taxi driver, provided by a lawyer who arranged their trip. As they drove into Reynosa, two other taxis cut the vehicle off. Two men got in, took away her cellphone and money and whisked them to a home that was under construction.
The lawyer “sold us out,” the woman said.
That night they were moved to a thicket near the Rio Grande where they were held captive in an outdoor camp for a week with dozens of others. They met another group of Cubans, who were also abducted shortly after flying into Reynosa: Several taxi and vans brazenly intercepted them in broad daylight, bringing traffic to a halt.
“It was as if we were terrorists and the FBI had swooped down on us,” one of the men said. He speculated they may have been betrayed by an airport immigration agent with whom they had argued over their travel documents.
López Obrador’s government has said the National Immigration Institute is one of Mexico’s most corrupt agencies. In early 2019 the institute announced the firing of more than 500 workers nationwide. According to a person with knowledge of the purge, Tamaulipas was one of four states where the most firings took place. Some worked in airports, others in the city of Reynosa.
In February the institute’s deputy delegate to the city was fired and accused of charging detained migrants over $3,000 to avoid deportation. Later new complaints surfaced of people being shaken down for $1,500 to be put at the top of wait lists to present claims in the United States.
At the riverside camp, the Cuban teacher was introduced to its “commander” who demanded “rent” and a fine for not traveling with a guide. The ransom was set at $1,000.
Previously the Cuban woman’s only exposure to the world of organized crime came from movies she watched on the illegal satellite TV hookup that caused her to run afoul of authorities back home. Now, they were witnessing things both terrifying and hard to understand.
There was the time a man tried to suffocate another with a plastic bag, or when the kidnappers, some barely in their teens, beat a “coyote” for working for a rival outfit. From what she was able to understand from the shouting, he had been kidnapped along with clients he was guiding and they wanted him to switch loyalties.
The captors at the thicket referred to themselves as “the corporation,” the teacher said. People came and went, some delivered by men in uniforms who may or may not have been police.
Edith Garrido, a nun who works at the Casa del Migrante shelter in Reynosa, said both crooked officers and criminals dressed as police — known as “black cops” or “the clones” — are mixed up in the racket, making the rounds of safe houses to buy and sell kidnap victims.
“They say ‘give me 10, 15, 25.’ They tell them they are going to take them to a safer place, and they give them to the highest bidder,” Garrido explained. “A migrant is money for them, not a person.”
The captors let the Cubans use their cellphones for a few hours to coordinate ransom payments with relatives, always small amounts to different bank accounts. Weeping, the teacher recalled how her 25-year-old daughter in Cuba had to pawn all her belongings.
After the ransom came through, the captors took her picture and she, her son and another woman were put in a taxi and driven off. The cabbie stopped the car along a highway, took her cellphone and said they could go.
She and her son now await their immigration court date in Reynosa, where she has found temporary construction work to pay for rent and food.
There’s not enough space for everyone at the shelters, so many rent rooms, and that demand has pushed prices up. It can range from $35 per person per month for a spot in a cramped five-person bedroom in a seedy area, to $300-$500 for a more secure home.
But nowhere is truly safe. Last month a family from El Salvador missed their turn to present themselves for U.S. asylum after a shootout erupted in the streets and they were afraid to leave their home.
Garrido said some pay protection fees so they are not bothered in their homes, while others rent directly from the gangs.
“So one way or another,” she said, “they make money.”
Associated Press writers Peter Orsi in Mexico City and Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.