Deportees carry their personal items in plastic bags provided by U.S. authorities… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)
MATAMOROS, MEXICO — They stuck together, walking slowly on busted sidewalks, approaching corners warily. They hurried past smoky taco stands and fleabag hotels. Nobody strayed.
Deported from Southern California the night before, the 20 men had gotten a few hours of fitful sleep at the bus station of this lawless border city. Now they just wanted to get out of town.
"We were moving as one, like a ball," said Rodrigo Barragon, 35, formerly a construction worker in Los Angeles. "But when I looked back, the ball had a tail."
PHOTOS: Mexican deportees face a dangerous future
Five men were following them. Up ahead, three vehicles screeched to a stop, blocking their way down Avenida Washington. The migrants scattered, tearing through streets and alleyways, clutching small bags that held their belongings.
Hours later, they straggled through the door of the Diocese of Matamoros migrant shelter, beneath an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. A plaque beside the entryway bore a dedication: "To the 72 murdered migrants and to those we know nothing about," men and women who were massacred or who simply disappeared.
Even this shelter couldn't guarantee safety: Fifteen residents were dragged away at gunpoint on Christmas Eve from the dining room where the newcomers now stood.
FULL COVERAGE: Without a country
The men headed deeper into the compound, through an open yard surrounded by razor-wire fence, to the dormitory. There, they found a man sprawled on the floor, his legs bloodied and bruised.
The migrants had been flown 1,500 miles to the Texas-Mexico border as part of a U.S. enforcement program aimed at making it harder for them to return. Many were deported after traffic violations or drunk driving arrests exposed their undocumented status, or after repeatedly entering the country illegally.
Now, they joined in prayer, then quietly ate dinner.
"I feel like something bad can happen at any time," said Serafin Salazar, formerly a car mechanic in El Monte.
U.S. immigration authorities have sharply increased deportations to one of Mexico's most fiercely contested drug-war battlegrounds, the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, where few migrants have any connections or family.
Repatriations to the besieged border cities of Matamoros, Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo jumped nearly fivefold to 124,729 last year from 25,376 in 2006, according to Mexico's National Institute of Migration. More than one-fourth of all deportees from the U.S. are sent to Tamaulipas, even as violence here escalates.
Deportees arriving in Matamoros are schooled quickly about the dangers they will face. The moment these 20 men crossed Gateway International Bridge from Brownsville, Texas, orange-shirted agents from Grupo Beta, the Mexican migrant safety force, gathered them for a lecture:
Criminal gangs consider you rich targets.
They will try to get phone numbers of your relatives in the U.S. for ransoms.
Dial 0 after making calls on public phones so previously dialed numbers can't be accessed.…
Some of the new arrivals scribbled phone numbers backward, in case they fell into the wrong hands. They stuffed the pieces of paper into their shoes. Then they squeezed onto the Grupo Beta pickup trucks, which whisked them to the city bus station.
Stay inside, the agents told them, promising to pick them up in the morning and help arrange discounted bus fares for trips home. Many of the migrants were heading to towns and cities deep in Mexico's interior, a two-day bus ride away.
But the Grupo Beta agents, busy handling more repatriations, never returned for these men. They were now at the mercy of organized crime groups that have gripped Tamaulipas.
Lookouts track new arrivals from the moment they enter Mexico. Gunmen intercept deportees at migrant shelters and buses and outside money-transfer businesses. They hold them for ransom, recruit them into gangs, sometimes assault, torture and "disappear" them. Church-run shelters and social service groups, once safe ground, no longer are.
"Deporting people here is like sending them into a trap … to be hunted down," said Father Francisco Gallardo, a Roman Catholic priest who oversees the diocese's shelters in Matamoros and Reynosa.
Tamaulipas, sharing a 150-mile border with Texas, is a battleground between the Gulf Cartel and the paramilitary-style Zetas. Warring groups have blockaded highways, launched grenade attacks against government buildings and confronted Mexican military units in firefights that have left cities shrouded in smoke.
Organizations trying to document the migrants' plight have been chased out. A human rights group in Nuevo Laredo shut down last year after receiving threats. Local journalists have stopped covering cartel-related crime after at least 13 reporters were kidnapped or slain in recent years.