NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico (AP) — The round-faced woman from La Ceiba, Honduras, and her 5- and 12-year-old sons arrived in this city across the border from Laredo, Texas, where she had been promised a job and hoped to build a new life.
Instead they were met by unidentified men, taken to a hotel, held in a room and threatened not to try to leave while the men tried, unsuccessfully, to extort money from relatives. After three days they managed to escape when the men left the room unguarded and they took refuge in a church.
"I don't want to go out on the street. I'm afraid the same men ... will do something to me or my boys," the woman said, insisting on speaking anonymously out of fear for their safety.
As the United States tries to slow the flow of mostly Central American migrants and asylum seekers to its southern border and pressures Mexico to assist, months-long stays on the Mexican side of the frontier have become the rule for many. Their situation is especially precarious here in Tamaulipas, which is one of Mexico's most violent states and where organized crime gangs are dominant. The U.S. government tells its own employees not to set foot in nearly all parts of the state.
For the 1,800 or so asylum seekers and migrants currently stuck in Nuevo Laredo hoping for a chance at refuge in the United States, fear is palpable and stories of harrowing experiences are common.
The Mexican government announced plans Wednesday to spend millions of dollars to improve migrant shelters and detention centers that house families, but in southern Mexico, far from the U.S. border.
The Honduran woman fled her home country due to threats she had received as a government worker. She sought asylum in southern Mexico, but the documents related to that claim were stolen along with her phone in a previous kidnapping attempt when men hustled the family into a van as they were walking down a street. They got away when the vehicle approached a checkpoint and they were abruptly shoved out the door.
Now she finds herself in Nuevo Laredo and wants to try for asylum in the United States, but she is worried by a new U.S. policy this week that would make it harder for people like her to claim refuge. Even if she does try, once her name reaches the front of the long waiting list she stands to be promptly sent back to Mexico to wait for a U.S. court date months down the line — Nuevo Laredo recently became the fourth city to receive asylum seekers returned across the border under a U.S. program known informally as "remain in Mexico."
"I don't want to be here," the woman said of her uncertain future, one of her sons clinging to her at all times. "I don't know, I don't know," she sobbed.
She spent all day Wednesday at a shelter in Nuevo Laredo, afraid to even venture out to the local migration office to try to replace her Mexican asylum documents.
Nor has she filed a police report about the kidnapping. "How am I going to report it? If they find out, they'll kill me," she said.
Migrant advocacy groups have criticized the U.S. decision to return asylum seekers to Mexico under the policy that began in January, and particularly its rollout to Tamaulipas.
"Forcing them to remain in Nuevo Laredo is an inhumane policy," Doctors Without Borders said in a statement. "It is putting them in the hands of organized crime, where being a migrant is synonymous with being merchandise."
The group said 45% of migrants to whom it provided health or psychological care in the first five months of the year suffered some kind of violence while waiting to cross into the United States.
"Most of our patients don't go out on the streets because the risk of kidnapping is imminent," it added.
Gledis Neira, a 52-year-old Cuban, arrived in Mexico on June 4 and a week later at a municipal shelter in Nuevo Laredo. It wasn't long before three friends, also Cubans, were pulled from a taxi, robbed and threatened with a baseball bat.
Another day a woman came to the shelter saying she was looking to offer work to "girls who knew how to dance, preferably Cubans." Someone questioned whether it was safe after the woman refused to offer details on the supposed job, and nobody went with her.
"I came to understand the fear in Nuevo Laredo. ... The (shelter) guards themselves were telling us to watch out for ourselves," Neira said.
The U.S. State Department warns U.S. citizens to avoid all travel to Tamaulipas due to widespread crime and kidnapping, and the state's highways are the scene of all sorts of smuggling. On Wednesday, 112 Central Americans were rescued from an overcrowded tractor-trailer.
Drug gangs and splinter groups have long fought for control. And Nuevo Laredo is considered a "crown jewel" for smugglers with its bridge crossings handling over 60 percent of Mexico's exports to the United States.
Currently the Northeast cartel is in charge, ruling through threats, disappearances, kidnappings and killings. Nuevo Laredo registered 144 violent homicides through the first five months of this year, and there are 20 open kidnapping investigations.
Mexican officials fear a possible repeat of a 2010 massacre of 72 migrants in the Tamaulipas town of San Fernando, and want at all costs to avoid that.
On Tuesday, dozens of people who were returned from the United States to Nuevo Laredo were put on a bus bound for the city of Monterrey. Most had crossed illegally, unlike others who waited weeks to file U.S. asylum claims and so far are being sent back to Nuevo Laredo.
"We are focusing on transferring them to the safest places possible, so that they are not exposed to extortions, to risks, dangers," Maximiliano Reyes, assistant foreign relations secretary, said Wednesday. He added that officials were examining the possibility of converting a military base in the nearby town of Colombia into a migrant reception center.
There are signs that immigration facilities in Monterrey, too, are overwhelmed.
Mexico's National Human Rights Commission said that city police had to be called in when about 100 people packed into the Monterrey office tried to flee on Wednesday. The people were later taken to a fairground.
A Salvadoran man at the officee died of a heart attack, the government said, though the circumstances were unclear.
Some asylum seekers said arriving at the U.S. border initially seemed like a victory, but being sent back to Mexico sapped them of hope.
Doris Villegas cried as she recalled the bakery that she, her husband and their two teen children left back home in crisis-stricken Venezuela, and the family's hopes for a stable life in the United States.
They waited 50 days in Nuevo Laredo before they were able to apply for refuge, and then were promptly sent back to wait for a Sept. 19 hearing. Now they are running out of money and don't know what they will do.
"Go out into the streets and look for work?" Villegas said. "I don't dare."
Associated Press writer Alfredo Peña in Ciudad Victoria, Mexico, contributed to this report.