McALLEN — Grisber Calero, a college student from violence-torn Nicaragua, is lying on a hospital bed in this border city, minutes away from surgery.
The athletic 21-year-old seems calm and jovial, but he admits he’s scared. He’s fighting a nasty infection from a gunshot wound that has left him numb below the right knee.
Harlingen lawyer Jodi Goodwin, who helped spring Grisber from U.S. immigration custody within 24 hours of his arrival in the United States, is doing her best to reassure him that the violence he just fled won’t follow him to Texas.
“Now you are in a safe place. Here there are no shootouts,” Goodwin says in perfect Spanish as she leans over the side of his bed. “And they are going to cure you.”
Grisber knew the danger he faced back home. Dictatorial President Daniel Ortega and his powerful wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, have shown their willingness to crack down on political protests by any means necessary — and a lot of young college students like Grisber have been shot as a result.
But that knowledge doesn’t make the scene in the pre-op room at McAllen Medical Center any less surreal. That’s because Grisber wasn’t shot by Ortega’s henchmen or anyone else in Nicaragua.
He and several other Central Americans were sprayed with bullets near midnight on Aug. 25 by Mexican federal police officers — or men dressed like them — as they approached the U.S. border in Reynosa on the way to seek asylum in Texas. One of the migrants, a Honduran woman, was shot in the head while she cradled her months-old baby, Grisber and his father say.
It’s a cruel irony that Central American asylum-seekers face every day in Mexico. They flee the frying pan of violence and extortion in their home countries only to land in the fire that is Mexico, where robbery, shakedowns by dirty cops and price-gouging by profiteering merchants leave them desperate and broke by the time they reach the U.S. border.
This is a story Mexican politicians and diplomats, often critical of increasingly harsh U.S. policies toward migrants, don’t like to talk about. But unless Central Americans pay a coyote — human smuggler — up front before leaving home, they are almost certain to endure abuse in Mexico on their way north.
The lucky ones escape the worst of it: kidnapping, assault, sexual abuse.
Others, like Grisber, get caught in the crossfire as warring cartels fight for a piece of the lucrative business of moving migrants across the Rio Grande.
Now safely across the border, Grisber knows he’s lucky to be alive — despite the gaping bullet hole in his leg and the drug-resistant bacterial infection doctors are trying to beat. He tells his lawyer he’s never been under the knife before.
“I’m a mother,” Goodwin says in the most soothing voice she can muster. She tells him her own son has had several successful surgeries, that doctors will put him under and he won’t feel a thing. Grisber flashes a nervous smile.
“Tell them not to cut off my foot,” he says.
First on the campaign trail and now in the White House, Donald Trump has made undocumented immigrants crossing the border from Mexico his most reliable whipping post. He accused Mexico of sending “rapists” here on the day he announced for president. He turned “Build the wall!” into a bumper sticker and added “bad hombres” to the political lexicon. Then, a year and a half into office, Trump unleashed a border crackdown so harsh — leaving thousands of children separated from their parents — that even staunch conservatives like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas couldn’t stomach it.
As the two-year mark of the Trump presidency draws near, few would dispute that life has gotten tougher for people in the United States without legal permission. But in recent years, it’s grown even tougher and more dangerous for immigrants in Mexico — mostly Central Americans trying to make their way to the United States.
“It’s been a steady ratcheting up over time,” said Stephanie Leutert, who runs the Mexico Security Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin. “There is no cost at all for hurting a migrant. There are a lot of upsides for the criminals and few downsides, so why not?”
Reported crimes against migrants in Mexico quadrupled from 2013 to 2017, while the number of humanitarian visas Mexico provided to migrants who were victims or witnesses of crimes — protection extended on Sept. 6 to the Calero family — shot up by more than 400 percent, immigration statistics show.
In 2015, Mexico created a new federal agency within its attorney general’s office to investigate abuse against migrants. But impunity reigns, according to the Washington Office on Latin America, which found only 1 percent of crimes against migrants end in conviction.
After learning that the Mexican AG’s office had opened an official probe into the brazen shooting that left Calero and three other migrants injured, The Texas Tribune sent an email to the agency’s newly minted Investigation Unit for Crimes Against Migrants.
An automated response came back: “The email inbox is full and cannot accept messages at this time.”
Fleeing Daniel Ortega
The Tribune first encountered Grisber and his father, Bernardo Calero on Sept. 13, hiding out at the Senda de Vida migrant shelter on the banks of the Rio Grande in Reynosa, a stone’s throw from the border-straddling town of Hidalgo. Grisber was nursing two gunshot wounds, one a poorly stitched-up crater in his upper right thigh, the other a crescent-shaped gash across his right buttock. Bernardo, 49, was still picking at tiny shards of shattered glass in his leg.
The father-son duo was unsure what to do next.
Grisber’s injuries made an illegal river-crossing dicey. Yet the Caleros were also apprehensive about claiming asylum the “right way” — by surrendering to U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the official port of entry. They feared they’d be turned away only to face more violence or be held for ransom in Reynosa, the migrant kidnapping capital of Mexico.
Grisber didn’t know at the time that he needed urgent medical care and that he’d already contracted a dangerous infection — though the yellow pus pooling in his leg wound hinted at trouble.
This wasn’t a predicament Bernardo thought he’d find himself in on July 7, when he fled his hometown of Matiguas, Nicaragua, after leading protests against Ortega’s reign. That day, paramilitary troops loyal to Ortega stormed into town to dismantle the street barricades that Bernardo, a city councilman who presided over a political party opposed to Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front, had helped erect to protest the president’s increasingly authoritarian rule.
A few hours later, family members said, AK-47-toting men broke down the door of his mother’s home looking for Bernardo, but he was already gone. “If they had caught me they would have taken me to El Chipote,” Bernardo said — the notorious prison in the capital city of Managua where many protesters have wound up.
Grisber was a marked man too, thanks to the computer science student's own participation in the street protests and his father's role as an opposition leader. He hid at the homes of relatives while his father ensconced himself on a friend's farm. A few days later, the two reunited and quickly headed for the Honduran border, followed by Guatemala. On Aug. 15, they crossed the Usumacinta River at La Técnica, Guatemala, and illegally entered Mexico.
That’s when the shakedowns began.
A big business
A decade ago, migrants could purchase the services of a coyote to guide them through Mexico to the United States for $1,000 to $3,000. Not anymore. Crackdowns in both countries have produced a highly professional smuggling network and driven up the price to as much as $9,200, according to a recent U.S. Department of Homeland Security study. One migrant told The Texas Tribune he recently paid almost $17,000 to get successfully smuggled from Nicaragua to Austin.
Homeland Security figures show 80 to 95 percent of border-crossing migrants contract with a smuggler. The money finances bribes for corrupt immigration agents, payments to stash house owners and a final “quota” — a tax — owed to the cartels that control whichever patch of Mexican borderland they cross, according to a Honduran coyote who identified himself only as “El Sultan.”
“It’s like a cake — everyone gets their pedacito [little piece],” El Sultan told the Tribune in August.
The Caleros couldn’t afford to pay a smuggler up front — the cost was somewhere between $7,000 and $10,000. Like many other migrants, they had to freelance their way through Mexico, forking over thousands of dollars along the way to opportunists and cartel-connected gangs.
In Mexico, Central American migrants might as well have dollar signs tattooed on their desperate faces. Everywhere they go, their clothing, accents and demeanor betray their origins and make them easy prey. To get to the U.S. border, they shell out bribes to bus drivers, endure shakedowns from local and federal law enforcement and often encounter abuse and discrimination from unscrupulous business owners.
A couple of years ago, migrant Dikenis Carias, his wife and two children were kicked out of Las Palmas Motel in Piedras Negras, Mexico — opposite Eagle Pass — in the middle of the night after the owner discovered they were Honduran. As Carias was gathering the family’s belongings, the Tribune caught motel manager Luis Enrique Martinez on tape dismissing Mexico’s theoretically tough law banning discrimination on the basis of national origin.
“Every hotel has its rules. The rule says we don’t rent to foreigners. Only Mexicans,” he said. “A law is one thing. The rules of the hotel are another.” (Hours earlier, a desk clerk at Las Palmas had agreed to rent a room to this journalist — an American citizen with a Texas driver’s license.)
This year, on the first sweltering day of August, Honduran migrant Doris Romero, her son and nephew stood near a soggy Texas riverbank and recounted their journey through Mexico. Romero said she was thankful for the Mexicans who took pity on her and lent her a helping hand. But what stuck with her was the humiliation and discrimination she felt. She had run out of money three days earlier, having spent every penny she had — about $7,000 — for the trio to reach the United States.
“They take advantage of you. A bottle of water that costs 10 pesos (55 cents), they charge you 35 or 40 pesos ($2 or $2.25),” she said. “When they see you’re illegal, they know you’re bringing money and they charge you whatever they want to charge.”
Kilometer Marker 178
For the Caleros, the first swindle came when they went to change their precious dollars into the local currency at a casa de cambio. The official rate is about 18 pesos to the dollar, but in Chiapas, the first Mexican state they reached after leaving Guatemala, Bernardo said the rate for migrants was six pesos for a dollar; in neighboring Tabasco it was 11.
“Mexicans look at you and, if you’re Central American, they exploit you even in the exchange of dollars,” he said.
Next came the bus drivers. On their way to Villahermosa, Mexico, Bernardo and Grisber said the chofer, for a price, offered to stow them away in the luggage compartment or the bathroom should they need to hide from Mexican law enforcement. They paid up.
But when a uniformed officer came on board, Bernardo had to pay him too, he said. There was no need to hide.
Through word of mouth, Bernardo tapped into a smuggling network in Villahermosa that would guide them to the border town of Reynosa in the northern state of Tamaulipas, the most popular staging ground for Central American migrants preparing to enter the United States. Across the river from Reynosa sits the Border Patrol’s busy Rio Grande Valley Sector, where almost half of migrants crossing the country’s southern border — and two-thirds of so-called “family units” making the northward journey — were apprehended in 2017.
On Aug. 24, on a patch of highway outside Reynosa, the bus driver — for a fee of 1,000 pesos ($55) — dropped off the Caleros and two other Nicaraguans at the 178 kilometer marker, right before a law enforcement checkpoint, Grisber said.
They landed on a dusty and thorny trail next to the highway, where the Caleros found about 400 fellow migrants waiting for a caminante — walker — to guide them around the checkpoint. After a few more migrants joined them from drop-offs at the same kilometer marker, the caminante barked some incomprehensible code words into his cell phone, and off they went.
Bernardo snapped a cellphone picture of his son on the rocky path carrying a black and red backpack, sending it via WhatsApp to his brother Douglas in Indiana.
They walked for hours along the trail, 20 miles in all. At one point, roughly halfway in, a distressed and pregnant Guatemalan migrant who was carrying a toddler stopped suddenly.
“I can’t go any further,” she told them. “Leave me here so I can call the police to come get me.”
Fearing she might die in the brush, Grisber and his father carried the toddler in their arms and helped the young mother along for three hours.
Finally they reached an abandoned factory, where the migrants were separated into groups according to a clave, or password, the caminante had given them. Central American migrants who arrive in Reynosa without a clave do so at their own peril. The clave means you’ve paid off the cartel — in these parts, the Cartel del Golfo (Gulf Cartel).
From there, they were loaded into vans and shipped to a little town near Reynosa, where they paid their final installments, $500 each, and fully expected they would be ferried across the border to Texas on a raft the next day.
Nothing went as planned.
“I saw the bone”
At about 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 25, 10 days after they crossed into Mexico from Guatemala, Grisber and Bernardo loaded into a dark van en route to Reynosa. Along the way they stopped to pick up other migrants, a couple of times at shopping centers, a couple of times at homes. Eventually nearly two dozen people were stuffed in the van, driven by a 20-something Mexican.
If the cajitas — or “little boxes,” as Grisber remembers the migrants being called — were paying $500 each, the load traveling north would have been worth more than $10,000.
At 11:40 p.m., Bernardo sent a WhatsApp message to his brother Douglas to tell him they were headed toward the border.
Minutes after, he saw a burst of red and blue flashing lights behind them, then heard a police siren. Their driver stepped on the gas, but the truck was drawing ever closer.
Then the bullets started flying.
Inside the van, the migrants — among them several children — began screaming and crying. The driver, keeping his cool, veered right and hit the brakes.
Then he threw the van door open and darted off “like a deer,” Bernardo said, vanishing into an adjacent neighborhood.
The three or four armed men in the truck stopped behind the van. Then they got out of the vehicle and opened fire on the migrants from about 10 yards away, the Caleros said.
Grisber remembers hearing a loud boom and realizing he was shot. He fell back and looked down at his mangled right thigh. He saw “all the meat” hanging there like a ham.
“I looked down and I saw the bone, I saw all of it,” he said “And I grabbed it and I was shaking." He remembers screaming at the top of his lungs: “My leg! My leg!”
He tried to stand up and get out of the van, but his leg didn’t cooperate. Then he heard another shot and he was hit again, this time in the right buttock.
The people in the van screamed that they were migrants, unarmed civilians, and their assailants fled. Grisber and his father said the men were wearing blue uniforms and had logos consistent with Mexican federal police officers.
In the chaos that ensued, Bernardo lost his phone, but someone called for help. Within a half-hour the state police had arrived at the scene and called firefighters, who took the injured migrants to the hospital.
Press reports the next day said there were 21 Central Americans in the van, four of whom were injured, including a Honduran woman who suffered a skull fracture. Bernardo said a bullet whizzed through the van and struck the young mother in the head. She was cradling a months-old baby in her arms. The baby was not injured.
Doctors at the General Hospital of Reynosa crudely stitched up Grisber, and he was released a week and a half later, on Sept. 5.
Before the Caleros left the hospital, Bernardo struck up a conversation with the security guard outside. He said he’ll never forget her shock at hearing their story of the botched border-crossing attempt that left his son badly injured.
She told Bernardo they had hired pure amateurs.
“If you want to cross, I have a bodega [safe house], and I never had this problem that you had,” the guard said. “I have a bodega with 100 people in it, and I will cross you."
“Mexico isn’t safe”
After leaving the hospital, the Caleros headed to the National Institute of Migration office next to the bridge linking Reynosa and Hidalgo. There, on Sept. 6, they were issued humanitarian visas — given to migrants who are victims of crimes — allowing them to stay in Mexico for 40 days.
On one condition: They had to “renounce any complaints,” Bernardo said. As a result, the sworn affidavit in his visa paperwork contains some unwarranted gratitude.
“I want to say that at all times I was treated with respect by the Mexican authorities,” the narrative of events in Bernardo’s visa states. “Our human rights were respected and ... I do not wish to make any allegations, or present any evidence.”
It was neither true nor written by Bernardo, who had filed a complaint about the shooting with state authorities and felt his rights were violated in Mexico. An immigration official in Reynosa said the text was only intended to cover the treatment the Caleros received at the National Institute of Migration office.
The Caleros were still determined to make it to the United States, but, uncertain about how best to get across the border, they took up temporary refuge inside the Senda de Vida migrant shelter, a fortified compound run by a Mexican soldier-turned-pastor. While they were there, Goodwin, the South Texas immigration lawyer, learned of their plight and agreed to take their case.
On Saturday, Sept. 15, exactly one month after entering Mexico — and about $3,000 lighter in the pocketbook — Grisber and Bernardo walked down the McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge toward the United States with Goodwin as their escort.
At the midway point on the bridge, where officials have ramped up scrutiny of asylum-seekers, Goodwin approached a Customs and Border Protection officer and announced she was accompanying the two Nicaraguans onto U.S. territory.
“He and his father are both presenting themselves for asylum, but the young man has been shot twice,” Goodwin told the officer. The officer asked if Grisber had an urgent health issue.
“He needs medical care, yes,” Goodwin responded. Soon a wheelchair appeared, and U.S. immigration authorities whisked them away. Bernardo was taken to the nearby Port Isabel Detention Center. Grisber went to the hospital.
The next day, on Grisber’s 21st birthday, doctors at McAllen Medical Center began treating him for his infection. A day later, he underwent surgery to scrape and clean the wounds. Two weeks after that, with sensation slowly returning below his knee, Grisber walked out of McAllen Medical Center without assistance.
Carrying a one-year “humanitarian” permit U.S. authorities gave him at the hospital, Grisber got on a plane to Maryland, where family members — and an eventual date in immigration court — awaited.
At last check, Bernardo was at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Livingston awaiting his credible fear interview — the first step in the asylum process.
Goodwin said the Caleros should have strong cases to make for political asylum, particularly since they have plenty of evidence to demonstrate their own government is persecuting them. What isn’t so clear is who shot them up minutes from Texas. Was it, as the Caleros suspect, Mexican federal police officers? Or were they “rival cartel members” fighting over a lucrative load of “little boxes,” as Goodwin theorizes?
At this point, there’s no way to know for sure.
Either way, Goodwin said it should be a cautionary tale for Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States: “Mexico is not a safe place to transfer through.”
Or a cheap one.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Editor's note: The Texas Tribune and TIME have partnered to closely track the family separation crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. This story is not available for republishing by a national news organization until Oct. 18 at 6 a.m. Texas news organizations may run it at any time. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org.