The violence of drug cartels and smaller narco-gangs permeates certain regions in Mexico, upending and threatening the lives of families living in cities, towns, and rural communities plagued by this blight. José’s story testifies to the daily fears and drastic decisions faced by those in the path of this criminal activity, and the need for a U.S. asylum process that recognizes the profound dangers and persecution endured by applicants from these regions.
Back home in Mexico, 45-year-old José lived with his family—two sons (ages 18 months and 10 years), his wife (30), and his mother-in-law (62)—in a modest rented house in a small Michoacán city. There, he was self-employed as an avocado distributer for nearly 20 years, contracting with local farmers and selling their goods to local restaurants, grocery stores, and Wal-Marts throughout the region. The life he’d crafted for himself and his family was not luxurious by any means, but it was sufficient for their needs, and José was proud of what he had achieved.
In 2014, however, things took a serious turn for the worse. That year, drug gangs began to make inroads in José’s community, and demanded that all business owners pay a quota or else suffer possibly brutal penalties. José refused to pay on principle, and soon after was kidnapped for 10 days until his family came up with his ransom. Though he was returned to his family alive, he still bears the scars from three bullets and a broken nose he endured while captive. Those assaults made José painfully aware of the life-or-death risks of refusing to pay the quota. After his kidnapping, he opted to pay.
Each month, the gang demanded a quota of 5,000 pesos (about USD$280) from José and also a sizeable portion of his salary (16,000 pesos, or about USD$880), leaving José with a meager USD$600 to support his family of five. This barely covered their monthly expenses—rent, food, electricity, educational fees, and steep transportation costs to cover the long distances José drove to pick up and deliver avocadoes. As the years went by, he had to dip into his savings to pay the quota.
When José was unable to make the quota in January, he was kidnapped again, this time for fifteen days, with a ransom of one million pesos (USD$55,600), an inconceivable sum for anyone he knew. José had no doubt that the gang would kill him if he did not pay, and he was frightened for his family’s safety—gang members had threatened to kidnap his infant son if the ransom was not paid and future compliance promised. It was only through tireless efforts that the family raised $400,000 pesos (approximately USD$20,750) and also relinquished their two vehicles—a Mazda sedan for family transport and the Nissan truck that José used for his business—to secure José’s release.
Following this traumatic event and with few resources to continue his business, José and his family made the decision to flee. Paying future quotas would be impossible, and staying would expose them and extended family members to more violence, further risk of kidnapping, and possible death. They left in the dark of night, and on the three-day journey to Nogales, José remembers his heart pounding in terror each time the family passed through a police checkpoint en route; he suspected that gang members would be looking for him, perhaps with the collaboration of corrupt police officers.
The family arrived in Nogales, Sonora on February 12, and found accommodation at a local shelter to await their turn to speak with a U.S. agent to begin the asylum process. Because there are over 100 people ahead of them in line, the waiting period is likely to be at least two more weeks. Despite surviving the dangers of the road to make it to Nogales safely and grateful for the secure spaces of the shelter, Grupo Beta, and the comedor, José remains cautious and on alert. He never goes out after dark, never walks in groups of fewer than 10 people, and is constantly on guard for who might be watching him. It is widely known that the cartel’s reach extends throughout the country, which is why relocation within Mexico is not an option for people fleeing gang violence. And José understood that most other countries in Central America—“and I considered all the way to Venezuela”—would be equally difficult to find safety and opportunity given the instability throughout Latin America.
When his family’s number is called, José will share his account of the threats and violence his family has lived through, their reasons for fleeing, and dire need for refuge outside their home country with a U.S. agent. If his fears are deemed credible and his family is permitted entry into the country while their claims are processed, he hopes to join his nephew—who has agreed to sponsor them—in Texas. His mood is anxious, particularly as the days in Nogales drag on, but he is intent on following the rules and entering the U.S. through lawful means. Above all, he is eager to provide his boys the opportunity for a future of safety, educational opportunity, and the chance to grow to adulthood without threat. He said, “I estimate that if I stayed in Michoacán, the likelihood that I’d be alive in one year to be there for my family and support them would have been less than 10%. Having left, my chance of survival is 90%. My decision had to be life.”