Matamoros Drug Violence Spurs Rise In Kidnapping

Matamoros Drug Violence Spurs Rise In Kidnapping

7:27pm Apr 02, 2015

Battles between rival drug gangs are flaring in the northeastern Mexican city of Matamoros. Kidnapping is increasingly being used by the narco-traffickers as an income generator. One kidnapping victim tells NPR his story.

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Just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, violence is flaring along the northeastern border of Mexico. Rival factions of the Gulf Cartel are battling for control of a valuable smuggling corridor. The local population is caught in the crossfire and has increasingly become a target. NPR's John Burnett reports now on one man's harrowing experience.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The portly 29-year-old Mexican-American used to buy and sell gold. He owned a jewelry store in Matamoros, not far from a friend's curio shop where he now sits. His name is Juan. He asked that we not use his last name, out of security concerns for himself and his family. He wears a thick gold chain and trendy red sneakers. The men who kidnapped him two years ago apparently knew his family was well off.

JUAN: One day I was just closing my store and three guys show up. They told me, get in the van. I was afraid of my life because I saw guns.

BURNETT: They put a sack over his head, drove for half an hour, stopped the van and ordered him out. He says he was led into a filthy, evil-smelling room with bloodstained walls and no toilet. Juan would spend the next seven days there. They fed him spoiled food and brutalized him daily.

JUAN: They started hitting me really bad on my body, my face, my head. Each of them got sticks, like a baseball stick. I actually start thinking that they feel pleasure when they hit me. They told me like, we know you guys got more money, your family's saying that they don't have enough money to pay for you, they don't care about you - they're going to let you die.

BURNETT: They did not let him die. His parents paid the kidnappers a half-million pesos - nearly $42,000 - for their son's life. On the eighth day, the men pulled the sack over his head and put him back in the van. They drove for about two hours. Juan lay on the van floor thinking he was about to be executed, while his captors laughed in the front seat and sang along to narcocorridos.

JUAN: Then one of them just told me, OK, [expletive], you're done. They took me out of the van. I can see nothing. They hit me really, really bad. I pass out.

BURNETT: When Juan regained consciousness, he realized he was alive and his hands were untied. He'd been left in remote scrubland on the outskirts of Matamoros. He says he was in terrible shape. His nose was broken, his eyes were nearly swollen shut and his head was covered with contusions. He walked for hours until he finally heard highway traffic and spotted a farmhouse. The campesino saw him and called an ambulance.

JUAN: I woke up in a hospital. The first person that I saw was my mom and my dad. I just start crying.

BURNETT: It took Juan months to recover from his physical wounds. Today he still sees a therapist for mental anguish, more than two years later. Like many other Matamoros families that can afford to, his parents fled his hometown and moved across the river to Brownsville, Texas, where Juan has opened a new business that he prefers not to name. They knew the city had changed. Matamoros has been controlled by organized crime for decades, but the new narco bosses were different.

JUAN: In past years, you'd just see guys in white trucks - oh, that's the members of a cartel, but they don't mess with the people. What I see right now is that these guys are just looking for money. They're not doing their straight business that is the trafficking. They see that they can get money from the people. That's what I think, that they kidnap.

BURNETT: And it didn't used to be that way?

JUAN: No. Well, you'll never hear stories like mine.

BURNETT: The details of Juan's story could not be independently verified, but the fact of his kidnapping was confirmed by a fellow downtown merchant. And it's consistent with the rash of kidnappings that has plagued this region in recent years. Cartel members are preying on locals as alternative income. First, the killing and capture of major drug capos has led to the fragmentation of criminal syndicates in Tamaulipas State, as it has elsewhere in Mexico. A power struggle is underway within the Gulf Cartel between los ciclones in Matamoros and los metros in Reynosa, and no one is safe. Second, trafficking drugs is just harder these days. The U.S. side of the river is guarded by federal agents, state troopers and the National Guard, while Mexico has flooded Matamoros and Reynosa with military troops. Once again, the harder the Mexican government fights the cartels it seems the more misery it creates for the people. John Burnett, NPR News, Matamoros, Mexico.


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