How Mexico's deadly gang tactics are spreading

Migrants wait for a train in Mexico Central American migrants in Mexico are vulnerable to kidnap by Mexican drug gangs while they wait for trains heading north to the US

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Central American migrants heading north to the United States fear that they are increasingly in danger of being kidnapped and murdered by drug gangs expanding their criminal operations south from Mexico.

"People and body parts were scattered everywhere like stones. There was a torso here, a head there. Even the animals were chopped up."

Salvador, a boatman, is describing the scene at Los Cocos ranch in the region of Peten, in the north of Guatemala, where a gruesome massacre took place on 14 May, blamed on members of a feared Mexican drug gang known as the Zetas.

In this case, those targeted were 27 farm workers, killed in retribution for the farm owner's alleged unpaid drug debt.

But the fear among locals and migrants passing through on their way to the US is that the Zetas are expanding into this remote region.

When Salvador heard about the massacre, he drove there to take a look for himself.

"What I saw at Los Cocos, was just terrible," he says. "I don't want to talk about it a lot because I could get into trouble."

Written in blood

The Zetas have been operational in Peten since 2008, and the fear among local people is palpable.

A threat is written in blood on the wall of a farm building Following the massacre, a warning was written in blood to the farm owner

"No-one talks about them," says Salvador. "They do their thing, and no-one knows what they are doing or who they are."

Illustrative of this fear, the guide who takes us to Los Cocos does not want to be identified, and we are escorted by a pick-up truck full of soldiers.

The ranch is deserted with just the sound of birdsong carrying on the hot, still air.

There are two rough, wooden huts, which were home to some of the murdered farm workers.

Start Quote

If aside from making a profit from transporting drugs, the cartel can make money from extorting migrants or kidnapping them, they are going to do it”

End Quote Julie Lopez Guatemalan journalist

The earth is littered with the detritus of their lives - mugs, shoes, a mattress.

A message is written - in blood - in large, letters on the wall of one of the white-washed buildings. It is addressed to the owner of the ranch, who was absent on the night of the killings.

"I'm going to find you," it reads, "and I'm going to leave you like this" - a reference to the gruesome scene that Salvador witnessed.

Peten is on many migrants' route through Central America as they head north to the US, through Mexico, where the Zetas routinely kidnap and murder migrants.

Mexico's National Commission for Human Rights reported that in just six months last year, 11,333 migrants were kidnapped in Mexico.

So far they have not done this in Guatemala, but there are real concerns that if they gain control of Peten, this will change.

"The massacre at Peten was a repeat of Zeta behaviour in Mexico," says Julie Lopez, a Guatemalan journalist.

"Right now in Peten, they are struggling for control with some local drug-trafficking groups. For them it's all about profit, and business."

Brother Tomas speaks to migrants Brother Tomas (right) runs a migrant hostel in Tenosique, Mexico

"If aside from making a profit from transporting drugs, they can make money from extorting migrants or kidnapping them, they are going to do it."

Forty miles across the border in Mexico, the migrants head for Tenosique in the state of Tabasco. Here they can catch la bestia - the Beast - a goods train that wends its way north.

But it is dangerous for migrants to group together.

"If there are more than five migrants together, it is easier for organised crime to kidnap them," says Brother Tomas, who runs a migrant hostel in Tenosique.

"Organised crime groups like the Zetas often target migrants who are waiting for the train. They befriend them, ask them if they want to make a call home or give them food. Then they get on the train, too.

"And just beyond Tenosique, the train is ambushed by masked men in pick-up trucks, and the migrants are taken off at gun-point."

Brother Tomas hears reports of kidnap and serious assault every week.

Deadly threats

Jonny and Miguel - not their real names - are Hondurans in their early twenties. They were among a group of eight migrants taken from the train in June.

Start Quote

I was taken to a room and they put a gun to my head. They said I should work for them or I would die”

End Quote Miguel Kidnapped migrant

First the Zetas tried to recruit them.

"I was taken to a room and they put a gun to my head. They said I had to work for them or I would die," says Miguel.

Then they wanted to extort money.

"They are looking for the goose that lays the golden egg," says Jonny.

"First they abuse you verbally, then hit you, torture you, and threaten to shoot you. But we didn't have money, and we don't have any family back home who could pay them. So they let us go."

Jonny and Miguel were very lucky. Families of migrants across Central America dread the call from Mexico, asking for a ransom - $10,000 (£6,100) can be demanded, which is a lot of money for poor families to find.

Find out more

Crossing Continents is on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 11 August at 11:00 BST and Monday 15 August at 20:30 BST

Relatives are forced to sell possessions and land, and then wire the cash in a bank transfer. Even then, they may never see their loved one alive again.

The Zetas who took Jonny and Miguel were not in the mood for killing that day. They probably released them because they realised these fragile young men were poor prospects as recruits, or for ransom.

But the other migrants who were taken with them were not released at the same time.

"We were all separated. I just heard shouts and screams. I don't know what happened to them in the end," says Miguel.

Jonny and Miguel have been so badly shaken by their experiences in Mexico that they have abandoned their journey to the US.

Having turned around, they are now back on their way home to Honduras.

You can listen to Crossing Continents on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 11 August at 11:00 BST and Monday 15 August at 20:30 BST. You can also listen via the BBC iPlayer or the podcast.

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