Protesters angered by Iran raising government-set gasoline prices by 50% blocked traffic in major cities and occasionally clashed with police Saturday after a night of demonstrations punctuated by gunfire, in violence that reportedly killed at least one person.
The protests put renewed pressure on Iran’s government as it struggles to overcome the U.S. sanctions strangling the country after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
Though largely peaceful, demonstrations devolved into violence in several instances, with online videos purporting to show police officers firing tear gas at protesters and mobs setting fires. While representing a political risk for President Hassan Rouhani ahead of February parliamentary elections, it also shows the widespread anger among Iran’s 80 million people who have seen their savings evaporate amid scarce jobs and the national rial currency’s collapse.
The demonstrations took place in over a dozen cities in the hours following Rouhani’s decision early Friday to cut gasoline subsidies to fund handouts for Iran’s poor. Gasoline in the country still remains among the cheapest in the world, with the new prices jumping up to a minimum of 15,000 rials per liter of gas — 50% up from the day before. That’s 13 cents a liter, or about 50 cents a gallon. A gallon of regular gasoline in the U.S. costs $2.60 by comparison.
But in a nation where many get by as informal taxi drivers, cheap gasoline is considered a birthright. Iran is home to the world’s fourth-largest crude oil reserves. While expected for months, the decision still caught many by surprise and sparked immediate demonstrations overnight.
Violence broke out Friday night in Sirjan, a city some 800 kilometers (500 miles) southeast of Tehran. The state-run IRNA news agency said “protesters tried to set fire to the oil depot, but they were stopped by police.” It did not elaborate, but online videos circulating on Iranian social media purported to show a fire at the depot as sirens wailed in the background. Another showed a large crowd shouting: “Rouhani, shame on you! Leave the country alone!”
Mohammad Mahmoudabadi, an Interior Ministry official in Sirjan, later told state television that police and demonstrators exchanged gunfire, wounding several. He said many protestors were peaceful, but later masked men armed with guns and knives infiltrated the demonstration.
“They insisted on reaching the oil depot and creating crises,” Mahmoudabadi said.
The semi-official ISNA news agency later quoted Mahmoudabadi as saying the violence killed one person.
In Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province, online videos purported to show police firing tear gas on crowds. The province’s city of Khorramshahr also saw gunfire, as could be heard in a brief clip played on air by state television. The region has long been a political tinderbox, with its ethnic Arab population that feels disenfranchised from the country’s Persian-language majority.
Saturday morning, the start of the Iranian workweek, saw protesters stop cars on major roadways across the capital, Tehran. Peaceful protesters blocked traffic on Tehran’s Imam Ali Highway, calling for police to join them as the season’s first snow fell, according to online videos. A dump truck later dropped bricks on the roadway to cheers.
A large crowd in the city of Kermanshah demonstrated and later drew tear gas fire from police, a video showed. Others reportedly clashed in Tabriz, another major Iranian city. The online videos corresponded to Associated Press reporting on the protest.
Such protests require prior approval from Iran’s Interior Ministry, though authorities routinely allow small-scale demonstrations over economic issues, especially as the country has struggled with currency devaluation. Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli later warned on state TV that authorities would crack down on anyone threatening the nation’s security.
It wasn’t immediately clear if police made arrests. Iranian state television aired a segment Friday night trying to dispute the claims of opposition satellite news channels about the protests, calling their videos of demonstrations “fake news” in English. Demonstrators in many online videos Saturday began identifying the time and place in response.
Iranian internet access meanwhile saw disruptions and outages Friday night into Saturday, according to the group NetBlocks, which monitors worldwide internet access. By Saturday night, “real-time network data show connectivity has fallen to just 7% of ordinary levels following 12 hours of progressive network disconnections as public protests have continued across the country,” NetBlocks said.
“The ongoing disruption is the most severe recorded in Iran since President Rouhani came to power, and the most severe disconnection tracked by NetBlocks in any country in terms of its technical complexity and breadth,” the group said. The websites of state media outlets appeared affected by the outage early Sunday.
Protester chants mirrored many from the late 2017 economic protests, which resulted in nearly 5,000 reported arrests and at least 25 people being killed. Some criticized Iran’s spending abroad on Palestinians and others while the country’s people remain poor. Protests meanwhile continue in Iraq and Lebanon, two Mideast nations home to Iranian proxies and crucial to Tehran’s influence abroad.
Iran long has suffered economic problems since its 1979 Islamic Revolution cut off its decades-long relationship with the U.S. Its eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s followed, further straining its economy.
The collapse of the nuclear deal has exacerbated those problems. The Iranian rial, which traded at 32,000 to $1 at the time of the accord, fell to 122,600 to $1 in trading Saturday. Iran has since begun breaking terms of the deal as it tries to force Europe to come up with a way to allow it to sell crude oil abroad despite American sanctions.
Henry Rome, an analyst at the Eurasia Group, said that after mass protests, Rouhani was forced to back down from a 2017 plan to increase fuel prices by 50%.
“The government was clearly attuned to this risk: The latest announcement was made in the middle of the night before a weekend,” Rome said. “It took effect immediately, and it was announced without direct consultation with lawmakers.”
Prince Andrew offered a detailed rebuttal Saturday to claims he had sex with a woman who says she was trafficked by Jeffrey Epstein, providing an alibi for one of the alleged encounters and questioning the authenticity of a well-known photograph that shows him posing with the woman.
In a rare interview with BBC Newsnight, Andrew categorically denied having sex with the woman, Virginia Roberts Giuffre, saying, “It didn’t happen.”
He said he has “no recollection” of ever meeting her and told an interviewer there are “a number of things that are wrong” about Giuffre’s account.
Giuffre has said Epstein forced her to have sex with Andrew in 2001 when she was 17. She says Epstein flew her around the world on his private planes to have sex with powerful men, and that she had sexual encounters with Andrew in London and New York and in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“I can absolutely categorically tell you it never happened,” Andrew said.
A request for comment was sent to Giuffre’s representative. Giuffre recently challenged the British royal to speak out, telling reporters in New York, “He knows exactly what he’s done.”
“And the answer is nothing,” Andrew told BBC.
Andrew’s decision to grant the interview was seen in Britain as a high-stakes gamble in a country where the royals don’t normally talk with reporters on subjects beyond their charitable works.
The nation’s newspapers, most of which featured photos from the interview along with the pre-released excerpts on their front pages Saturday, speculated that the prince thought he had no other choice after months of tawdry headlines that threatened his ability to continue working as a royal.
“This is the gambling equivalent of betting the house on the last spin of the roulette wheel,’’ royal writer Richard Kay said in the Daily Mail. “And Andrew has put it all on black.’’
In the wide-ranging interview, Andrew suggested a photograph Giuffre produced of her posing with Andrew could have been doctored, saying he “can’t be certain” that it actually shows his hand on the woman’s side.
He said he was “at a loss to explain” the image, adding he is not given to public displays of affection. He said it also shows him wearing “traveling clothes,” noting he typically wears a suit and tie when he goes out in London, where the photograph purportedly was taken.
“I’m afraid to say that I don’t believe that photograph was taken in the way that has been suggested,” he said. “If the original was ever produced, then perhaps we might be able to solve it but I can’t.”
Confronted with details of Giuffre’s claims, Andrew insisted he was home with his children on one of the nights Giuffre claims they had sex, saying it “couldn’t have happened.” He said he specifically recalled taking his daughter to a party at a Pizza Express that afternoon.
Andrew sought to cast doubt on other parts of Giuffre’s account, including her recollection of Andrew sweating on her as they danced in a London night club.
Andrew told BBC he has a “peculiar medical condition, which is that I don’t sweat or I didn’t sweat at the time” after suffering an “overdose of adrenaline” after being shot at in the Falklands War, the 1982 conflict between Argentina and the United Kingdom.
“It was almost impossible for me to sweat,” he said.
Andrew also said he regrets not cutting ties with Epstein after the financier pleaded guilty in 2008 to soliciting a minor for prostitution in Florida under a deal that required him to serve 13 months in jail and register as a sex offender.
He saw Epstein following his release from custody in Florida and stayed at his New York mansion for several days. He said he ended his friendship with Epstein during that visit and did not have further contact with him.
“It was the wrong decision to go and see him in 2010,” Andrew said. “I kick myself for (it) on a daily basis because it was not something that was becoming of a member of the royal family.”
Epstein, who rubbed shoulders with the elite and politically powerful, killed himself this summer while awaiting trial on federal sex-trafficking charges. He had been accused of sexually abusing dozens of women.
Andrew did not rule out cooperating with the ongoing federal investigation in the United States into Epstein’s associates, saying he would follow his lawyers’ advice.
Giuffre’s lawyers have said they also want to depose Andrew.
“If push came to shove and the legal advice was to do so, then I would be duty bound to do so,” Andrew said.
Bolivia’s interim president met with a U.N. envoy to discuss the country’s crisis Saturday, a day after security forces fired on supporters of former President Evo Morales in a clash that killed eight people and raised fears that violence could escalate.
On leaving the meeting with interim leader Jeanine Áñez, U.N. envoy Jean Arnault said the United Nations is concerned about the violence in Bolivia and hopes it can contribute to an accelerated pacification process leading to elections.
U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet issued a statement earlier in the day calling the deaths “an extremely dangerous development.”
“I am really concerned that the situation in Bolivia could spin out of control if the authorities do not handle it sensitively and in accordance with international norms,” she said.
Protesters said police fired Friday when demonstrators tried to cross a military checkpoint in Sacaba, a town near Cochabamba. Many of the protesters were coca leaf growers loyal to Morales, who had been Bolivia’s first indigenous president before being pressured to step down by Bolivia’s military chief after weeks of widespread protests over a disputed election.
Witnesses to the clash described seeing the bodies of several protesters and dozens of people rushed to hospitals, many covered in blood.
Presidency Minister Jerjes Justiniano told reporters that five people were killed and an estimated 22 injured. He accused protesters of using “military weapons.”
On Saturday, Bolivia’s national Ombudsman’s Office raised the death toll to eight.
Police and soldiers broke up fresh blockades of flaming logs and tractors Saturday on the road linking Sacaba to Cochabamba, but there were no immediate reports of deaths.
Fears of escalating violence were stoked when angry demonstrators and relatives of the victims gathered at the site of the shootings late Friday chanting, “Civil war, now!”
Morales, who was granted asylum in Mexico after his Nov. 10 resignation, said on Twitter that a “massacre” had occurred and he described the interim government led by Áñez as a dictatorship.
At least 13 other people died during the earlier unrest that preceded Morales’ departure, according to the Ombudsman’s Office. Several came in clashes between the president’s backers and those who accused him of using vote fraud to win the Oct. 20 presidential election.
On Friday, Áñez said Morales would face possible legal charges for election fraud if he returned home from Mexico City. She also has said Morales would not be allowed to participate in a new presidential election, which is supposed to be held within three months.
The ousted leader, meanwhile, contended this week that he is still president since the country’s legislature has not yet approved his resignation.
Morales stepped down following nationwide protests over suspected vote-rigging in an Oct. 20 election, which he claimed to have won to gain a fourth term in office. Morales has denied there was fraud, though an Organization of American States audit reported widespread irregularities.
Families of the victims held a candlelight vigil in Sacaba. A tearful woman put her hand on a wooden casket surrounded by flowers and asked: “Is this what you call democracy? Killing us like nothing?”
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned what it called “the disproportionate use of police and military force” in the clash.
“Firearms must be excluded from the operations used to control the social protests,” the commission said on Twitter along with a video that showed the five people lying dead on a blanket. Soldiers and police in riot gear had been patrolling the area with armored vehicles in the previous days.
“We’re not going to let them make us flee, nor humiliate us. Let me say to Mrs. Añez that she must denounce this. If not the whole country is going to close in on her,” said Enrique Mamani, a local resident. “They have carried out a state coup, paid off the military, paid off the police. There’s political persecution against our leaders.”
Backers of the interim government deny there was any coup against Morales, saying police and the military withdrew backing from him only to avoid shedding civilian blood during the mass protests against him.
Supporters of Morales, who was Bolivia’s president for almost 14 years and was the last survivor from the “pink tide” of South American leftist leaders, have been staging disruptive protests since his resignation, setting up blockades that forced closure of schools and caused shortages of gasoline in the capital.
Áñez, who had been the highest-ranking opposition official in the Senate, proclaimed herself president after Morales resigned, saying every person in the line of succession ahead of her — all of them Morales backers — had resigned.
The Constitutional Court issued a statement backing her claim that she didn’t need to be confirmed by Congress, a body controlled by Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism party.
Much of the opposition to Morales sprang from his refusal to accept a referendum that upheld term limits that barred him from seeking another term. He got the courts to declare the limits a violation of his human rights to seek office.
The gangsters trawling Nuevo Laredo know just what they’re looking for: men and women missing their shoelaces.
Those are migrants who made it to the United States to ask for asylum, only to be taken into custody and stripped of their laces — to keep them from hurting themselves. And then they were thrust into danger, sent back to the lawless border state of Tamaulipas.
In years past, migrants moved quickly through this violent territory on their way to the United States. Now, due to Trump administration policies, they remain there for weeks and sometimes months as they await their U.S. court dates, often in the hands of the gangsters who hold the area in a vise-like grip.
Here, migrants in limbo are prey, and a boon to smugglers.
This story is part of an occasional series, “Outsourcing Migrants,” produced with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
They recount harrowing stories of robbery, extortion by criminals and crooked officials, and kidnappings by competing cartels. They tell of being captured by armed bandits who demand a ransom: They can pay for illegal passage to the border, or merely for their freedom, but either way they must pay.
And then they might be nabbed again by another gang. Or, desperate not to return to the homes they fled in the first place, they might willingly pay smugglers again.
That’s what a 32-year-old Honduran accountant was contemplating. She had twice paid coyotes to help her cross into the U.S. only to be returned. Most recently, in September, she was sent back across the bridge from Brownsville to Matamoros.
Now, biding her time with her daughter in the city of Monterrey, she said one thing is for sure: “We are a little gold mine for the criminals.”
Tamaulipas used to be a crossroads. Its dangers are well known; the U.S. has warned its citizens to stay away, assigning it the same alert level as war-torn countries such as Afghanistan and Syria.
Whenever possible, migrants heading north immediately crossed the river to Texas or presented themselves at a U.S. port of entry to file an asylum claim, which would allow them to stay in the U.S. while their cases played out.
But the U.S. has set limits on applicants for asylum, slowing the number to a mere trickle, while the policy known colloquially as “Remain in Mexico,” has meant the return of more than 55,000 asylum-seekers to the country while their requests meander through backlogged courts.
The Mexican government is ill-prepared to handle the influx along the border, especially in Tamaulipas, where it has been arranging bus rides south to the relative safety of the northern city of Monterrey or all the way to the Guatemala border, citing security concerns — tacit acknowledgement, some analysts say, of the state of anarchy.
The gangs have adapted quickly to the new reality of masses of vulnerable people parking in the heart of their fiefdom, experts say, treating the travelers, often families with young children, like ATMs, ramping up kidnapping, extortion, and illegal crossings to extract money and fuel their empires.
“There’s probably nothing worse you could do in terms of overall security along the border,” said Jeremy Slack, a geographer at the University of Texas at El Paso who studies the border region, crime and migration in Mexico. “I mean, it really is like the nightmare scenario.”
Yohan, a 31-year-old Nicaraguan security guard, trudged back across the border bridge from Laredo, Texas, in July with his wife and two children in tow, clutching a plastic case full of documents including one with a court date to return and make their asylum claim to a U.S. immigration judge two months later.
Penniless, with little more than a cellphone, the family was entering Nuevo Laredo, dominated by the Northeast cartel, a splinter of the brutal and once-powerful Zetas gang.
This is the way he tells the story now, in an interview at a nonprofit in Monterrey that provides the family with shelter and food:
The plan was to call and ask help from the only people they knew in the area — the “coyotes,” or people smugglers, who earlier helped them cross the Rio Grande on an inflatable raft and had treated them well. Only that was in Ciudad Miguel Aleman, about a two-hour drive south parallel to the river.
On their way to the bus station, two strange men stopped Yohan while another group grabbed his loved ones. At least one of them had a gun. They were hustled into a van, relieved of their belongings and told they had a choice: Pay thousands of dollars for their freedom, or for another illegal crossing.
All along the border, there have abuses and crimes against migrants by Mexican organized crime, which has long profited off them. But Tamaulipas is especially troubling. It is both the location of most illegal crossings, and the state where the United States has returned the most asylum seekers — 20,700 through Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros as of early October.
The Mexico City-based Institute for Women in Migration, which tracks kidnappings of migrants and asylum-seekers, has documented 212 abductions in the state from mid-July through Oct. 15. And that’s surely an undercount.
Of the documented kidnappings in Tamaulipas, 197 occurred in Nuevo Laredo, a city of about 500,000 whose international bridges fuel the trade economy.
Yohan’s family was among them.
They had left Esteli in northwestern Nicaragua over three months earlier after armed, government-aligned civilian militias learned that Yohan had witnessed the killing of a government opponent, he said. They followed him and painted death threats on the walls of their home.
He is identified only by his middle name, because he and others quoted in this story fear for their lives and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Yohan borrowed against his mother’s house to pay smugglers $18,000 for the family’s trip. But he had not bargained on the closed door at the border, or the ordeal in Nuevo Laredo, and his bankroll was depleted.
The men who grabbed the family “told us they were from the cartel, that they were not kidnappers, that their job was to get people across and that they would take us to the smuggler to explain,” Yohan said. Then they connected a cable to his cellphone to download its contents.
Yohan’s first instinct was to give the passphrase that his previous smugglers used to identify “their” migrants. “‘That doesn’t mean anything to us,’ one of them told me,” Yohan said — this lot belonged to a different group.
Gangs in Tamaulipas have fragmented in the last decade and now cartel cells there operate on a franchise model, with contacts across Mexico and Central America, said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a political scientist specializing in organized crime, immigration, border security and human trafficking at George Mason University.
“They are contractors. They provide a service, control the territory, operate safe houses and charge for all that,” she said.
Yohan’s family was held in a series of what appeared to be private homes or offices, along with a family from El Salvador, two Cubans and two Mexicans. Everyone slept on the floor.
One captor, a 16-year-old, told him, “We have 15 smugglers, the cartel brings the people to us here and we take them across paying the cartel for the river crossing.”
The gang had been hiring lately: “Since the United States is deporting so many through here, we are capturing them and that has meant more work,” the teen told him. “We’re saturated.”
Initially the captors demanded $16,000. They gave Yohan and his wife a list of names and accounts; relatives were supposed to deposit $450 into each one without using companies seen as traceable by authorities.
But they were able to scrape together just $3,000, and that angered the gangsters.
“I’m going to give you to the cartel,” one shouted.
Then Yohan’s son came down with the mumps. The family got the captors to provide a bit of extra milk for him in exchange for his daughter’s little gold ring, but the boy wasn’t getting better and they abruptly released the family.
“They told us that the cartel doesn’t allow them to hold sick children,” Yohan said.
This is a matter of business, not humanity: A dead child could bring attention from the media, and then authorities, says George Mason’s Correa-Cabrera.
After 14 days captive and before leaving the safe house, Yohan was given a code phrase: “We already passed through the office, checking.” Only hours later they would need to use it. Arriving at the bus station, a group of strange men tried to grab them. Yohan spoke the six words in Spanish, and they were let go, and they went on to Monterrey.
On Sept. 22, Yohan’s family returned to Nuevo Laredo for their court date, bringing with them a report on the family’s kidnapping. Though U.S. law allows at-risk people to stay, they were sent back to the parking lot of a Mexican immigration facility, surrounded by seedy cantinas and watching eyes.
Mexican authorities organized bus transportation for those who wanted to return to their home countries. The family did not intend to go back to Nicaragua, so they asked the driver to leave them in Monterrey where they would await the next hearing.
After they were under way, the driver demanded $200. They couldn’t pay, so he dumped them about 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the city at 1 a.m., along with four others.
Unlike other border cities such as Tijuana or Ciudad Juarez, migrants and asylum seekers are rarely seen on the streets in Nuevo Laredo. Fear keeps them in hiding, and safety isn’t a sure thing even inside shelters. This summer pastor Aarón Méndez was abducted from the shelter he ran. He has not been heard from since.
Nor is it safe on the streets going to and from the station. A couple of months after Méndez disappeared, gunmen intercepted some people who were helping migrants make those trips; those being transported were taken away, and the helpers were told they would be killed if they persisted.
Kennji Kizuka, a researcher for New York-based Human Rights First, told of one woman who crossed into the U.S. for a hearing date, where she had to surrender her phone. While she was incommunicado for hours, calls were placed to relatives in the United States claiming she had been kidnapped and aggressively demanding a ransom.
“It’s clear that they have a very sophisticated system to target people,” Kizuka said.
In another instance, Kizuka said, cartel members were in the Nuevo Laredo office of Mexican migration, openly abducting asylum seekers who had just been sent back from the United States.
One woman hid in the bathroom with her daughter and called a local pastor for help; he tried to drive them away, but they were blocked by cartel members blocks way. The two were taken from the car and held by the gangsters, though they eventually were released unharmed.
A spokesperson for the Mexican foreign affairs secretary declined comment on allegations that Mexico cannot guarantee safety for immigrants returned from U.S.
U.S. Border Patrol officials said recently they are continuing to send asylum seekers back over the border, and that includes Nuevo Laredo. The number of people returned there has been reduced recently, but that was related to a decrease in migrants arriving at the border — and not violence in Tamaulipas.
In an interview, Brian Hastings, Border Patrol chief of law enforcement operations, told AP that officials didn’t see a “threat to that population” in Tamaulipas and “there was basically a small war between the cartel and the state police” there.
But the numbers indicate the danger is real.
As of August, Human Rights First had tabulated 100 violent crimes against returnees. By October, after it rolled out to Tamaulipas, that had more than tripled to 340. Most involved kidnapping and extortion. Kizuka said the danger is even greater than the numbers reflect because they are based solely on accounts his organization or reporters have been able to document.
Of dozens of people interviewed by AP who said they had been victimized in Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, Matamoros and Monterrey, just one had filed a police report.
Kidnappings of migrants are not a new phenomenon. According to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, in just six months in 2009 nearly 10,000 migrants were abducted while passing through the country.
Back then the cartels were splintering amid a government policy targeting their top bosses, leading them to fight among themselves in the people-smuggling business to fill two needs: money and labor. Kidnapped migrants generally were told they could avoid being killed by either paying ransom or working for the cartel.
Tamaulipas became a bloody emblem of the problem in 2010 when 72 migrants were found slain at a ranch in San Fernando, and a year later when the bodies of 193 migrants were found in the same area in clandestine mass graves — apparently murdered by a cartel to damage a rival’s people-smuggling business.
Raymundo Ramos of the Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee said gangs today are more interested in squeezing cash from migrants: “They have to recover a lot of the money lost in those wars.”
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has acknowledged that another massacre or escalation of violence is a major fear and has deployed more than 25,000 troops and National Guard agents to police people-trafficking in border regions and along smuggling routes. But all the accounts of violence in this account took place after that deployment.
Reynosa, a factory city of about 650,000, is the largest in Tamaulipas and home to some of the worst drug war violence. It’s also a key part of the migratory route and one of the busiest crossing points along with Ciudad Miguel Aleman.
Disputed by rival gangs, Reynosa has the feel of a place with invisible fences demarcating their territories, and numerous migrants said they had to pay to get past checkpoints at the main entrances to the city.
Lawyer and human rights worker Fortino López Balcázar said the gangs first took control of the river, attacking and beating migrants. Then they started grabbing them from bus stations, and then from the streets.
The airport is also tightly controlled.
A 46-year-old teacher from Havana recalled arriving with her 16-year-old son Aug. 13 by plane from Mexico City with the phone number for a taxi driver, provided by a lawyer who arranged their trip. As they drove into Reynosa, two other taxis cut the vehicle off. Two men got in, took away her cellphone and money and whisked them to a home that was under construction.
The lawyer “sold us out,” the woman said.
That night they were moved to a thicket near the Rio Grande where they were held captive in an outdoor camp for a week with dozens of others. They met another group of Cubans, who were also abducted shortly after flying into Reynosa: Several taxi and vans brazenly intercepted them in broad daylight, bringing traffic to a halt.
“It was as if we were terrorists and the FBI had swooped down on us,” one of the men said. He speculated they may have been betrayed by an airport immigration agent with whom they had argued over their travel documents.
López Obrador’s government has said the National Immigration Institute is one of Mexico’s most corrupt agencies. In early 2019 the institute announced the firing of more than 500 workers nationwide. According to a person with knowledge of the purge, Tamaulipas was one of four states where the most firings took place. Some worked in airports, others in the city of Reynosa.
In February the institute’s deputy delegate to the city was fired and accused of charging detained migrants over $3,000 to avoid deportation. Later new complaints surfaced of people being shaken down for $1,500 to be put at the top of wait lists to present claims in the United States.
At the riverside camp, the Cuban teacher was introduced to its “commander” who demanded “rent” and a fine for not traveling with a guide. The ransom was set at $1,000.
Previously the Cuban woman’s only exposure to the world of organized crime came from movies she watched on the illegal satellite TV hookup that caused her to run afoul of authorities back home. Now they were witnessing things both terrifying and hard to understand.
There was the time a man tried to suffocate another with a plastic bag, or when the kidnappers, some barely in their teens, beat a “coyote” for working for a rival outfit. From what she was able to understand from the shouting, he had been kidnapped along with clients he was guiding and they wanted him to switch loyalties.
The captors at the thicket referred to themselves as “the corporation,” the teacher said. People came and went, some delivered by men in uniforms who may or may not have been police.
Edith Garrido, a nun who works at the Casa del Migrante shelter in Reynosa, said both crooked officers and criminals dressed as police — known as “black cops” or “the clones” — are mixed up in the racket, making the rounds of safe houses to buy and sell kidnap victims.
“They say ‘give me 10, 15, 25.’ They tell them they are going to take them to a safer place, and they give them to the highest bidder,” Garrido explained. “A migrant is money for them, not a person.”
The captors let the Cubans use their cellphones for a few hours to coordinate ransom payments with relatives, always small amounts to different bank accounts. Weeping, the teacher recalled how her 25-year-old daughter in Cuba had to pawn all her belongings.
After the ransom came through, the captors took her picture and she, her son and another woman were put in a taxi and driven off. The cabbie stopped the car along a highway, took her cellphone and said they could go.
She and her son now await their immigration court date in Reynosa, where she has found temporary construction work to pay for rent and food.
There’s not enough space for everyone at the shelters, so many rent rooms, and that demand has pushed prices up. It can range from $35 per person per month for a spot in a cramped five-person bedroom in a seedy area, to $300-$500 for a more secure home.
But nowhere is truly safe. Last month a family from El Salvador missed their turn to present themselves for U.S. asylum after a shootout erupted in the streets and they were afraid to leave their home.
Garrido said some pay protection fees so they are not bothered in their homes, while others rent directly from the gangs.
“So one way or another,” she said, “they make money.”
Six men have been charged after a shooting at a New Jersey high school football game that critically wounded a 10-year-old boy and sent players and the packed crowd fleeing in panic.
Ibn Abdullah, 27, was the target of the Friday night shooting and was charged because a gun was found on him when emergency responders went to his aid, authorities said. He is in stable condition and will be undergoing surgery.
The 10-year-old remained in critical condition Saturday. A 15-year-old boy was treated for a graze wound.
The shooting happened in the stands of a Friday night playoff game between the Camden Panthers and the Pleasantville Greyhounds. Authorities said it did not appear that any of the men charged had any connection to the game.
“Our community will not be held hostage by a few idiots intent on jeopardizing our safety and the safety of our children,” Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon Tyner said in a news release.
Tyner said the shooting was “petty vengeance against one another.”
Alvin Wyatt, 31, of Atlantic City, was charged with three counts of attempted murder and two weapons counts. He was captured on the football field moments after the shooting by a Pleasantville officer who was part of the game’s security detail.
Three other men face weapons charges, and a fourth faces weapons and eluding charges.
It wasn’t known Saturday if any of the six have retained attorneys.
When the shots rang out, panicked spectators and some of the players knocked down a fence in their haste to escape the field. Some children were separated from their parents, and other parents held children tight to keep them from being run over by those fleeing, according to Jonathan Diego, who was at the game in Pleasantville, right outside Atlantic City.
“It was mayhem, literally people coming in waves running away,” said Diego, who helped coach a Pleasantville youth football team involved in a game in which three people were shot and wounded in 2005. All survived. That same team was practicing in 2015 when a spectator was shot but survived.
Diego said his friend, a retired paramedic, gave first aid to the young boy who was shot.
At least six gunshots are audible in a video from Jersey Sports Zone, which also shows players stop mid-play, look at the stands and then turn and run.
Officials said the game will resume Tuesday at a neutral field, with no spectators allowed.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy lamented the violence.
“Last night was a stark reminder that no community is immune from gun violence, and that we must not ever give up in our efforts to prevent such senseless acts,” Murphy said Saturday.