Chronicle of a kidnapping in the Mexico-U.S. border

REYNOSA, Tamaulipas — He remembers being on his knees, gagged and blinded with duct tape, his hands tied behind his back. One of his captors struck his left thigh with a bat and scraped his neck with an ax, threatening to cut him.

His 3-year-old son watched and wailed.

“Tell the boy to shut up. Make him shut up,” one of the men barked, ripping the duct tape from his mouth.

A few hours earlier, the 28-year-old migrant from Honduras, whose name is José, had been walking with his son down a street in Reynosa, Mexico, having been turned back at the border by the United States. Suddenly three men grabbed him, shoved a hood over his head and thrust him and his son into a vehicle.

The abduction Nov. 25 set off hours of intense negotiations as José’s wife in the United States, forced to listen to the sounds of her husband being tortured, tearfully negotiated a ransom over the phone.

In a series of phone conversations, and in several voice messages reviewed by The New York Times, the wife, a woman named Cindy who works at a bakery in Elizabeth, New Jersey, promised to get the $3,000 the kidnappers were demanding. “I will do everything to get it,” she said, sobbing into the phone. “But don’t let them hurt him. Take care of the child.”

Hundreds of thousands of people fled Central America over the past year, many of them seeking asylum in the United States from threats of extortion, murder and forced recruitment into gangs. But instead of allowing them to enter, the Trump administration has forced more than 55,000 asylum-seekers to wait for months in lawless Mexican border towns like Reynosa while it considers their requests for protection, according to Mexican officials and those who study the border.

Drug-related violence has long plagued these areas, but this bottleneck of migrants is new — and because many asylum-seekers have relatives in the United States, criminal cartels have begun kidnapping them and demanding ransoms, sometimes subjecting them to violence as bad or worse than what they fled.

In the past, migrants from places like Central America, Africa and Asia seeking asylum were allowed to enter the United States while their claims were adjudicated. Those who could not demonstrate a fear of persecution usually were ordered deported to their home countries. That changed earlier this year with the adoption of the “Remain in Mexico” policy, under which most asylum applicants are prevented from entering the United States …

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