At least 16 migrants are being held for ransom near the California-Mexico border, CNN reports, citing the account of a freed migrant whose family reportedly paid $4,500 for his release.
Mexican police suspect that members of a drug cartel kidnapped the group to extort their families for money. The freed hostage said they were being held in Tijuana.
The kidnappings come only a week after the massacre of 72 Central American migrants in Tamaulipas 100 miles south of the Texas border, where members of the Zetas drug gang are suspected of kidnapping and then gunning down the migrants after they refused to work for the cartel.
Professor Edgardo Buscaglia, an expert on organized crime at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, told The Upshot that drug cartels have recently gained an iron grip on the human smuggling business, and now usher an estimated 176,000 migrants per year into the United States.
According to a Mexican report, cartels gained more than $25 million in 2009 from kidnapping migrants and then demanding ransoms from their families.
People seeking to enter America illegally used to turn to an unorganized network of thousands of "coyotes" who would guide would-be migrants over the border in exchange for a fee. Drug cartels have since killed off many coyotes who did not want to share profits, and now the Zetas and Sinaloa cartels have a near monopoly on the human smuggling business, Buscaglia says.
"These organized-crime groups are basically controlling the trafficking of migrants," he said. "That means that there's a much higher risk of being kidnapped, of being squeezed, because the criminal business is much more structured. There's a much higher chance of being killed."
(Photo of a Honduran migrant resting in a shelter near Mexico City on his way to the United States: AP)