Mission migration: About 4,000 people have died or missing on way to US
Haydee Posadas had waited eight years for her son to come home. On the last night of her long vigil, she was too agitated to sleep.
Her son had fled Honduras for the US in 2010 in part because of gang threats, just as thousands are doing today in the migrant caravans headed north, including men from the same neighbourhood.
But en route in Mexico, again like so many others, Wilmer Gerardo Nunez disappeared into the vortex of drug violence that he was trying to escape in the first place.
Left in limbo, his anguished mother prayed for an answer. "I am between a rock and a hard place," she begged God through the years. "I know nothing about my son, whether he's dead or alive."
Nunez's story is part of the hidden toll of migration to the US through Mexico. In the past four years alone, almost 4,000 migrants have died or gone missing along that route, The Associated Press has found in an exclusive tally.
That's 1,573 more than the previously known number, calculated by the United Nations. And even the AP's number is likely low — bodies may be lost in the desert, and families may not report missing loved ones who were migrating illegally.
These Latin American migrants are among about 56,800 worldwide who died or disappeared over the same period, the AP found.
While migrants everywhere face risks, the Mexico route holds the added danger of drug trafficking and gang violence.
More than 37,000 people have gone missing throughout Mexico because of this violence, with the highest number in the border state of Tamaulipas, through which many migrants cross.
The sheer numbers of the disappeared, along with crushing bureaucracy and the fear of gangs, makes it difficult for families to track what happened to their loved ones — as Posadas found out.
Ciudad Planeta in San Pedro Sula looks like an ordinary working-class neighbourhood, with one-story concrete houses with metal roofs. Only the bars that hem in nearly every porch let on that it is one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in one of the world's most dangerous countries.
This is the neighbourhood Nunez left for the first time in the 1990s to go to the United States at 16, when his mother lost her factory job.
"He did not say anything to me. One day he simply left," said Posadas, a diminutive 73-year-old grandmother known in the neighborhood as "Mama Haydee."
Nunez was not the oldest of the 10 children in the family, but he was the one who looked out for the others.
He sent money home, some of which Posadas used to build metal bars around the porch. And he called his mother almost every day. Nunez was deported twice but returned to the US each time.
In 2007, he fell in love with a Mexican woman, Maria Esther Lozano, now 38, and they had a child, Dachell. When Lozano was about to give birth to another child, in July 2010, Nunez was deported a third time.
Posadas was happy to have him back home. He would make lunch with her, stewing meat, kneading tortilla flour and frying up ripe bananas. "He cooked better than a woman," Posadas said, her face lighting up at the memory.
But the neighborhood had grown more dangerous, with organised crime moving in and frequent bloody raids. All of Posadas' children left except for one who stayed, and one who died of illness.
Once Posadas' daughter was handcuffed to the bars of the house, while men who said they were police went inside and shot her grandson because they suspected his involvement with gangs. Other nights there were shootouts in the streets.
Sometimes Posadas awoke to the thunder of footsteps from someone fleeing across the metal sheet roofs of houses.
Posadas has a mantra for survival in Planeta: "If you saw it, you didn't see it. If you heard it, you didn't hear it. And everyone keeps quiet."
The third time Nunez was deported, in 2010, things were so bad he barely went outside the home. "He seemed very pensive," Posadas said. "'I'm afraid,' he told me." He was also anxious to get back to California and meet his new daughter.
After just a few days in San Pedro Sula and an apparent threat from gang members, he left earlier than planned. Nunez, his nephew, Joao Adolfo, and two neighbours hopped on a midnight bus that takes dozens of migrants daily to the Guatemalan border.
In the past, Nunez had crossed the US border in California. But this time he hurt his ankle while fleeing from the Zetas gang in Veracruz state, Lozano said. So he struck out for the border with Texas, a shorter but more dangerous route.
A day later, he spoke to Lozano, for nearly an hour. Rula — Nunez's nickname — seemed relaxed, making jokes, she said. They were in Piedras Negras, across from Eagle Pass in Texas.
Lozano was supposed to wait for a call to pay the smuggler half the money, about $3,000. Then she needed another call from Nunez's sister to confirm his safe arrival before paying the remaining $3,000.
The calls never came. Lozano never heard from Nunez. She talked to the smuggler a couple of times, who told her they were still waiting to cross. Then the phone went unanswered.
About two weeks after he left, when Posadas turned on the television news, fear suddenly seized her. Authorities had found 72 corpses of migrants on a ranch in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, across the border from Texas, the report said. (AP) IND
(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)