TIJUANA.– The roads of northeastern Mexico radiate fear: Central American migrants cross them in fear of being used as bait by the Zetas. And those who are deported from the United States try to avoid being repatriated across the border to the Atlantic side.
Mexican newspapers have reported on the abuses suffered by migrants from the eastern states of Nuevo León to Chiapas, but few reports have focused on the roads of northwestern Mexico — the Pacific side — that is said to be under the control of the Chapo Guzmán drug cartel.
Those who are most qualified to speak to the dangers of these roads are the drivers of public buses.
A tour of Tijuana’s bus station is enough to see a growing problem. In addition to the threat of organized crime, extortion and violence directed at passengers can be committed by elements of the region’s own police force. Bus drivers point to members of the Investigative Police Ministry, formerly called the Federal Agency of Investigation (AFI).
It isn’t an official toll, but according to employees of the Tijuana Central Bus Station, plain-clothed police officers are charging fees to migrants who are traveling by bus to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Juan Carlos (no last name) has been wandering through the Tijuana bus station for 16 years. A well-groomed man with graying hair, a white shirt and red tie, he is the ticket manager for the station. “Yes, it’s happened where they pull the driver off the bus and they use a little excess authority. That has happened, not much, but there is definitely something going on when the driver is coming and complaining … Anyway, we as a company can’t do anything about it.
“ Meanwhile, a driver who prefers to remain anonymous affirms, “A federal agent doesn’t stop you just to stop you. He stops you to see what you’ve got. To see what he can get from you. That’s why they stop you. They stop you to f— with you, that’s all.”
He recalls what happened to him at checkpoints along Highway 15, from Mexico City to Nogales, north to south and vice versa, where there are stop signs marked with the initials of the AFI, the Mexican police force.
The men who stop the bus aren’t in uniform, but you have to do what they say, he says. Whether they are members of the police force or organized crime, he can’t say, but he describes their operation. On the command, “Get out, everyone,” the review begins: Some passengers are separated and sheltered in a “room.” There are bus riders who are verbally and physically abused; others are robbed of their money and belongings.
”They make everyone get out and they put them in a f—ing room, filled with blankets and all kinds of sh-t, a room they have over there. Then they go one by one, right, and then they come out with, ‘Give us 200,’ ‘300,’ they even take 500 pesos from people. Damn it! It isn’t possible. It’s a robbery. So, what is our government doing? Nothing! Every day it gets worse and worse.”
After more than 30 years in the business, the driver says the transportation industry, instead of getting better, has deteriorated.
“People see someone dressed as a policeman and they start shaking! They’re already afraid, people are already scared. Because, I’m telling you: If a federal agent gets on the bus, it’s to take your money; if an AFI (police) officer gets on, it’s to rob you.”
It can happen to anyone, be it an undocumented migrant from Central America or a Mexican citizen with papers.
“Why are you going to pay police officers?” the driver asks. “If you are Mexican, and if you already paid for a bus ticket to go wherever you’re going, you have to pay the police, so that you can travel from here to there. Why? In other words, the gentleman should be getting a salary from the government, right? Why is he taking your money?”
“ In the last five years, he notes, this kind of extortion has become more common at checkpoints in the northern state of Sinaloa, in cities such as Escuinapa and Guasave, going in both directions.
It also occurs along the border, in the Sonora town of Sonoyta.
Meanwhile, Juan Manuel López, a bus driver on the Estrella Blanca (White Star) line, taking a break inside the Tijuana bus station before starting his return trip to Michoacán, responds to a brief question. When asked what is the greatest danger on the roads, he says it’s the police.
The stories of extortion and robbery described by bus drivers were confirmed by the manager of the Tijuana bus station, Ángel Camacho Martínez. “The risk you take going from here to Mexico City is big,” he said. “At all the checkpoints. More going from here to there, than from there to here. The men at the checkpoints often make all the migrants get off the bus, and then put them in a room and after a while they tell the bus driver: ‘Hey, they robbed me of 1,000 pesos.’ ‘They took 500 from me.’ ‘They took 200 from me.’ And the driver says, ‘What can we do?’ They’re jerks.”
Camacho estimates that there are between 20,000 and 22,000 passengers per month on the various transportation lines that arrive and depart from this central bus station, located at the last stop of the Latin American border — Tijuana.
None of Mexico’s police or security institutions responded to allegations of abuses along the roads of Mexico.
The spokespeople for the Attorney General’s Office, Secretary of Public Security, President’s Public Security and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center passed the responsibility from one organization to the next.
Meanwhile, the spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office, who said she “could not be considered as a source” said she did not know of “the crimes” mentioned and in order to follow up with these cases, there needed to be lawsuits filed by those who suffered the abuses.
Bus as one of the anonymous drivers said, many of the victims of extortion are migrants from Central America who are passing through Mexico, and they don’t report it.