Special Report: 'La Trampa', a Trap Laid Out for Migrants in Reynosa
MCALLEN – The dangers immigrants face as they journey to the United States range from injury to kidnapping and death; the risks increase in Reynosa.
A CHANNEL 5 NEWS investigation found cartels don't pose the only danger to migrants in Mexico.
Immigrants know getting past the U.S.-Mexico border can take just as long as getting to it.
It can take even longer to cross if they're in Mexico illegally and get caught.
The accounts we gathered show the wait times can be drastically altered by greed, corruption and opportunity.
The lure of the American dream drew young Cuban, Yosiel Rodriguez-Reyes.
He said, "I left in a rustic boat July 20 late one night toward Mexico. My intention was to legally enter the United States."
Rodriguez-Reyes was sailing toward Mexico; U.S. immigration policies were influx.
Asylum seekers, such as himself, were on Rio Grande Valley bridges last summer.
They were there because of the Zero Tolerance Policy that went into effect in April 2018.
The policy threatened family separation and stiff federal penalties if immigrants crossed illegally then sought asylum.
Ports of entry got packed and Customs and Border Protection officers began telling immigrants to wait on the Mexican side of the bridges to request asylum.
Mexican immigration officers began to move immigrants who were in Mexico illegally off the bridges as early as June 2018.
Officers would take them to provisional detention facilities where they can hold them up to seven days.
Mexican migratory laws dictate immigrants are to be moved to a longer-term detention space where they can file paperwork to be allowed to be in Mexico.
This was the fate awaiting Rodriguez-Reyes if he got caught – and he did.
He was taken off a charter bus heading into Reynosa.
Rodriguez-Reyes says, "At a checkpoint before you get here, it's about two hours or an hour and a half from here. That's where they told me, ‘Do you have documents?’ I said, 'documents? No, I don't have documents.’"
He says Mexican immigration took him to the provisional detention center located at the McAllen-Reynosa International Bridge.
They process immigrants in there before they're taken to a long-term detention center.
That wasn't happening.
Carlos, an immigrant stuck there for months, said, "We're like in a hidden place where no one knows about us."
It was in the basement where Rodriguez-Reyes met Carlos and German, another immigrant man wanting to request asylum in the United States.
German admits, "I never thought I would come to be in this situation."
Carlos and his family arrived in Tamaulipas in July.
They were separated and Carlos ended up at the provisional detention center at the McAllen-Reynosa Bridge.
German, like Rodriguez-Reyes, was also taken off a bus before it entered Reynosa.
He says a Mexican immigration officer questioned him.
"He asked what was the password," says German. "I said I didn't have a password, because I came alone without a guide, or a coyote, or anything like that."
Detainees in the basement were not allowed visitors, they smuggled a cellphone in.
Through it, they shared a glimpse of their living conditions.
They spent most of their time in a dormitory that Carlos described as having 16 double "bed" spaces made of cement.
"They look like tombs. Well, that's what we call them," he says.
Space was limited, even though that part of the detention center had 32 beds, Carlos says, "One time, they had over a 100 people in here."
They would sleep where they could, even on the floor.
The bathrooms and showers were open stalls with poorly maintained fixtures and there were no windows.
During one phone call, the voice of a child was in the background; they're not supposed to be there.
Immigrants of all ages and those in Mexico illegally were mixed with those who had legal status.
They were some of human rights attorney Jennifer Harbury's clients who explain legal status does not guarantee freedom in Mexico.
Harbury adds, "People started getting detained and deported, which was terrifying. Then, even if they did have a visa or permanent residency papers, or were Mexican citizens, they were not allowed on the bridge at all."
Carlos knew the reason for the long wait, he described their situation as a quagmire.
"When you get trapped here, you fall into a trap, into a legal kidnapping," said Rodriguez-Reyes.
If he wanted to get out, it would come at a price.
"When I arrived they told me, 'no, here in order to get out you have to pay $3,500 U.S. dollars. Ha! $3,500!" he says.
The Mexican immigration officers accepted bribes through third parties receiving wire transfers or directly through cash.
Immigration officers in Reynosa began seeing the immigrants as a business opportunity.
Harbury explains it's an increasingly common situation.
"Refugees are a hot commodity all through northern Mexico and also Central and Southern. All you have to do is grab them and it's almost free money," she explained.
Extortion reports in Mexico grow with the number of asylum seekers pouring into the country.
The director for Mexico and Immigrants’ Rights, Maureen Meyer who is part of a citizens' council that makes policy recommendations to Mexico's immigration office, says Mexico is overwhelmed.
She said Mexico had 200,000 asylum claims in 2018, a 300 percent increase compared to years prior.
It's a wave Mexico wasn't prepared to address.
Meyer disclosed, "There were technically only 15 refugee agents to process asylum claims throughout the country. It's still very, very low."
Long waits at ports of entry, high volume of immigrants detained in Mexico and a weak structure to handle asylum and visa requests created a hotbed for corruption in places such as Reynosa.
Immigrants in the same situation as Rodriguez-Reyes faced three options: pay the extortion fee, wait it out or escape.
He says they made their choice, "We got to the river and jumped in."
Rodriguez-Reyes, German and three others fled from detention Jan. 7.
Carlos stayed behind for his family.
Rodriguez-Reyes tells us immigration officers chased after the group, "And the immigration bosses were behind us running. When they saw that we got to the river, they said, 'watch out Cubans. You're going to regret it,' they would say. 'You're going to regret it.'"
One in the group nearly drowned and Border Patrol confirmed they had to take that immigrant to the hospital.
German didn't make it to the other side; he was caught by Mexican immigration.
Rodriguez-Reyes is now in U.S. detention waiting to plead his case before an immigration judge.
He laments, "I planned to enter legally to this country, turn myself in at the bridge, but I couldn't because Mexican immigration got me two hours before arriving to Reynosa and locked me up."
The federal charge of illegal entry into the U.S. will show up in his record.
They jumped into the river underneath the McAllen-Reynosa Bridge.
The provisional detention center sits on the Reynosa side.
A source with the National Institute of Immigration from Mexico City confirmed to CHANNEL 5 NEWS the director of the center was removed from his duties; the center was shut down.
Rodriguez-Reyes is still in U.S. detention waiting for his court hearing.
German and Carlos were transported to a different detention facility a few weeks ago.
Carlos is now back with his family waiting to get a humanitarian visa.
They were separated for eight months.