Denis Sanabria had not slept well in five days and felt the empty stomach meant bad news. He was at work in Nashville, Tennessee as a carpenter, holding a saw in one hand when the phone rang.
It was a Mexican telephone number.
Some men on the other end of his line told him that they were holding David, his 32-year-old brother, and Ximena, his 4-year old niece. He had to send $7,500 to the kidnappers in order to see them again.
Denis asked who was calling and was told that he couldn't ask any questions, but that he needed the money.
Denis stated that he was left gasping after the call. He lost contact with his brother for a week, and the coyote (smuggler), who brought David from Honduras, didn't return his calls.
Denis Sanabria examines the receipts for payments he made his brother David's kidnappers. (Noticias Telemundo Investiga)
Two hours later, the phone rang once more. David called, asking him to do everything he could to obtain the ransom money.
Noticias Telemundo Investiga interviewed 32 kidnapped migrants in Mexico and the U.S. between 2019 and 2021. They were required to pay ransoms of $1,500 to $5,000 to various criminal gangs or cartels for each kidnapped person.
Family members sold their cars or other property to get the money. They also took their savings from the bank and went into debt with friends or family.
Denis was unable to find more money for his brother or his niece. He had sold his car and taken out all of his savings to pay the coyote $8,000 for their crossing from Mexico to the U.S.
In November, Eta and Iota caused the family in Honduras to lose everything. The family's corn and bean crops, which they depended on in their native Corts, were destroyed.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, exodus from the U.S. has been on the rise since the hurricanes and in the midst of Honduran's political turmoil.
During David Sanabria's March 2021 trip to Mexico, he was accompanied by his daughter Ximena. (Sanabria family).
CBP statistics show that 40,091 Hondurans were arrested last year for trying to enter the U.S. illegally. The Border Patrol has so far recorded 98.554 migrant arrests this year, which is more than twice the number of the previous year.
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David's coyote was to take them to the Texas border. He was to surrender himself and his daughter to U.S immigration authorities to seek asylum.
They were then taken to Reynosa, Mexico's state of Tamaulipas by a coyote who handed them over an armed group.
Denis claims that the coyote deceived them because the fee he paid was to include the amount to be paid to criminals to enter their territory.
From crossing Mexico to becoming a hostage
David and his daughter spent a month on road sleeping in abandoned houses, at the tracks' edge, and under trees. They took what they could get in refugee camps on their journey to northern Mexico. They got nothing that was even close to what the coyote promised.
They were accompanied by eight migrants when they arrived in Monterrey in Nuevo Len.
A group of armed men ordered the vehicle to stop at the city gates. They ordered all of the migrants to get out and then inspected each one.
They searched me. They confiscated the backpack that I was wearing. David said that they threw me facedown.
They were brought to a warehouse where they were asked for their cellphones. Also, who were the U.S. relatives that paid for the trip? They were then kidnapped, and their relatives were required to pay the travel permit to them.
They claimed they were the ones who commanded Reynosa's border with the river, David stated.
Two days were spent in a cellar, then they were moved to the desert. To camouflage their hostage camp, green tents were placed under some bushes. David estimated there were 50 migrants, the majority of which were Hondurans.
They made us suffer hunger and thirst. They fed us only once per day. He said that it was almost always rice, beans, and water. He also stated that he would give his food his daughter.
David's health started to decline as the days went by. David began to feel weak, fatigued, and suffer from headaches. He knew that he had to call his brother and press him to pay when the kidnappers came with his cell phone.
Denis stated that he would explain to kidnappers over the phone that he didn't have any money. They refused to accept anything. He said that they told me I would have to wash cars, sell chewing tobacco, and begging on the streets. But that I had to pay the money if I wanted to see them alive."
They cut them up with a machete.
David was beaten every time Denis claimed he didn't have any money. His daughter wept when she saw him on the ground bleeding.
David stated that the ransom deadline passed for migrants and their families who couldn't pay the ransom. The captives were then killed in the camp.
They dismembered them with a machete, and killed them," David stated. "The only thing I could do for my daughter was to cover her eyes and ears so she wouldn't know what was happening. She would never have those memories throughout her life."
David stated that the bodies were cooked and that the remaining migrants were given the human meat to ensure that no trace of what they had eaten was left behind.
David was most moved by the night-time satanic rituals performed by kidnappers.
David Sanabria with his daughter Ximena in Honduras, before they set off on their journey to the United States in January 2021. (Sanabria family).
"They bent down. They saw images of Santa Muerte, the devil. They made pleas. They made offers. He said it was horrible. Many survivors spoke out to Noticias Telemundo Investiga about the cult of Death that was being practiced by kidnappers.
David was ill, and had accepted his death. However, he was worried that Ximena would be alive and in the care of criminals. He asked them to tell him that if they wanted to kill him, they would also kill his daughter.
I was worried that my daughter would be raised by them, so I decided to end my life. But he told me, "With my daughter, he said."
We don't play, you know.
While David and Ximena were going through hell, Denis was still living his own.
Denis borrowed money from his friends, co-workers and from a Nashville amateur soccer league. He also borrowed money from relatives in North Carolina. He was able raise $4,000. He was able to raise $4,000. But when he spoke with the kidnappers they insisted that the entire fee be paid if he wants to see his relatives alive.
The kidnappers called David back that day and told him to leave. "If you don't have the money, let me go, and God will take care of me."
Denis stated that it was like a farewell. "He knew I was tired here. I didn't have any money because they had taken everything I had."
Another family is threatened, this time via video
Daniel, another migrant, fled Honduras in February with 15 relatives. They crossed Guatemala to reach Tabasco in southern Mexico. The coyote brought them to Villahermosa as the capital. There they had to wait for eight days before they could obtain Mexican humanitarian visas to allow them to travel around Mexico.
The administrator informed them on the third day that the coyote left the hostel without having paid her or the group that charges the fee to travel in the region. Daniels estimates that there were at most 100 migrants in the warehouse where three vans carrying armed men arrived two hours later.
Daniel, who is afraid of showing his face, lives in Mexico, bordering the U.S., while he awaits his asylum petition for Aug. 2021. (Noticias Telemundo Investiga)
They were then told they had been kidnapped, and that $25,000 was required to hold the 15 children and their families responsible. The men were separated and beat so that videos could be made for their relatives.
Please send me the money. They will each receive $25,000 According to Noticias Telemundo Investiga, you already know that we don't play.
They began hitting us on the head with the AR-15, a semi-automatic rifle. Daniel told them that they would kill us if our families did not pay.
The conditions for migrants improved as ransom money was paid to kidnappers. They provided more food and turned on the air conditioning.
"So you can see they are well attended as long as your deposit money is today," said the voice.
The kidnappers got desperate when the money didn't arrive on time. We have already taken the children and their parents apart. They said they didn't want to take further actions. "We will start. We are going to begin cutting our little fingers. Now is the time to get our hands on some money!
Daniel kneeling alongside his cousins, while his kidnappers capture video to alert his Texas relatives. Villahermosa, Tabasco. April 2021. (Noticias Telemundo Investiga)
Daniel fled his captors twenty days later. He traveled for one week to reach the U.S. border, where he reached safety. He applied for asylum to be granted humanitarian aid and is currently waiting to hear back from authorities. His relatives, who are still held hostage, remain unknown to him.
Some of the other captive migrants were also released and chose to return to Honduras immediately. Others continued their journey to the U.S.
Exortion is not being tackled by the political will
Daniel claimed that a Texas relative negotiated the ransom of $25,000 for the group. A family member confirmed that Daniel and his family sold their cars in the U.S.A. as well as a farm located in Honduras.
All women received the same method of sending remittances from Mexico that was used for all transfers. According to Noticias Telemundo Investiga, women look less suspicious as they receive remittances in the U.S. from their relatives who are immigrant immigrants.
Denis retains the seven transfer he made to his brothers. This is a trick used by criminals to deceive authorities and get extortion money through the victims.
After fleeing from Villahermosa, Tabasco's kidnappers in August 2021, Daniel arrived in a single vehicle to the border city. (Noticias Telemundo Investiga)
Guadalupe Correa–Cabrera from George Mason University, who spent decades studying human trafficking, stated that there is a lack in political will between the U.S.A. and Mexico to stop extortion or the kidnapping and abduction of migrants.
Correa-Cabrera stated that many of these moneys, from human trafficking as well as extortion or kidnapping are laundered in Mexico and the United States.
She also stated that most of the money earned from extortions is "paid from the United States."
Deported to Tijuana after being freed in Reynosa
Denis was embarrassed by asking for money in Nashville streets and prepared posters explaining his and his brother's situation. He set out several plastic containers to collect money and within a week he had raised $3,500 to help his brother and his niece.
David and Ximena were freed in April near Reynosa. David was told by the kidnappers to follow a dirt road for half an hour, until he finds the Rio Grande. He would cross it and be on U.S. soil.
I was sick, depressed, beaten. I took my girl onto my back. David stated that I had told my girl to keep her on my back and we were able to swim across the river.
They crossed the border in five minutes. A Border Patrol van arrived and processed them. David begged the officers to deport them to Honduras, as he did not want to go back to Mexico.
Due to the extreme cold of the air conditioning, they were held for three days in one center called "hieleras" or iceboxes. My girl arrived at the center with a covered chest. He said that she had been coughing a lot and was getting bit by desert insects.
David and his daughter were released from detention on the third day. They were not given any explanation and boarded a plane to return to Mexico via Tijuana, Baja California. The National Migration Institute of Mexico staff received them and placed them in one of their shelters at the border.
David and Ximena eat in the Iglesia Embajadores De Jess shelter, Tijuana (Baja California, Mexico), July 2021. (Noticias Telemundo Investiga)
Title 42 is designed to stop the spread of Covid-19. Migrants detained at the border will be returned to Mexico, while asylum applications are processed.
CBP reports that 100,000 migrants are being returned to Mexico each month as of the beginning of the year.
David was afraid that he would be kidnapped once more when he arrived at Tijuana. He was reassured by Pastor Gustavo Banda who welcomed him into the shelter that houses 3,000 migrants.
Antonio Carpio is the Baja California's Anti-Kidnapping Prosecutor. He said that there aren't as many migrant kidnappings than in other areas along the northern Mexican border. This is because criminal groups there aren't interested in that business and they look for other means to make money, like drug trafficking.
He stated that while migrants have been kidnapped recently in Tecate, Mexicali, but Tijuana is safe for foreigners who are living in shelters or in camps such as El Chaparral where 1,500 migrants are accommodated.
David was assisted by Al Otro Lado in May to complete an asylum application. This organization provides legal assistance for migrants from Baja California. He said that he was able to obtain what he had longed for after many prayers.
The U.S. granted David & Ximena humanitarian pardon in August so that they could enter the country to live with Denis in Tennessee, while they wait for their asylum petitions to be heard.
Ximena in Tijuana (Baja California, Mexico) July 2021. (Noticias Telemundo Investiga)
We felt like everything was over, that our goal of being together was not possible. But Denis, who was crying at the Nashville airport, said that there is always a God who can accomplish anything. After six years, he was able hug his brother.
David stated that he wanted to warn migrants about the dangers of crossing roads made of thorns. They are roads of death and evil shadows. Mexico isn't a country we can cross safely.
David and Ximena have been blessed to be alive. He hopes that their new lives in America will compensate for the days of terror, hunger, insomnia, and anguish they endured on the way to their American dream.
Noticias Telemundo Investiga journalists Juan Cooper, Aldo Méza, Belisa Morillo and Dami Bonmat investigated and produced the following series of three reports. The investigation was conducted by Albinson Linares, Caleb Olvera.
This story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.
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