The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

Forced Criminal Activities along Mexico's Eastern Migration Routes and Central America Department of Public Affairs and Security Studies

Gulf Cartel

In recent years, transnational criminal organizations have fought over cities in the northern state of Tamaulipas. The Gulf Cartel currently controls the border cities of Matamoros and Reynosa. Both cities have suffered high levels of violence since the Mexican government launched an offensive to capture Gulf Cartel leaders in these cities. One of the consequences of the government’s operations was that the cartel broke into smaller factions, each contending for vacant leadership positions. One of the sources of revenue for the Gulf Cartel is migrant smuggling. In both cities, occurrences of human trafficking for compelled criminal activities have been reported. Unofficial sources indicate that forced recruitment of migrants and locals is widespread. 

Gulf Cartel Territory

Both the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel have their roots in the border city of Matamoros. The Gulf Cartel originally dominated Tamaulipas, but since 2010 it disputes the state with the Zetas. The city of Matamoros has witness significant clashes between the two groups. The city, known as the “The Great Door of Mexico,” is extremely important geographically. For decades, the Gulf Cartel held the monopoly of drug trafficking in Tamaulipas, turning Matamoros into a central location for its criminal enterprises. The strategic location of Matamoros is an important asset for the Gulf Cartel, but over the years their monopoly over Tamaulipas has eroded. The 2010 conflict between the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas extensively impacted the city’s society and economy, as well as the state’s general stability

Field Research

The last state we visited was Tamaulipas. Located in northeast Mexico and across the border from Texas, this state is one of the most violent places in the country. Due to the state’s high levels of violence, we had to maintain constant contact with numerous individuals in order to safeguard our personal wellbeing while conducting our research in the state. In northern Mexico, we visited Matamoros and Reynosa, both of which are under unofficial control of the Gulf Cartel. The two cities experience a high influx of migrants. However, unlike cities in southern and central Mexico where migrants only come from the south, Matamoros and Reynosa also experience an influx from migrants coming from the north. The United States deports a significant amount of migrants to Matamoros and Reynosa on a daily basis.

Matamoros is a hotspot for human trafficking in the form of forced labor for criminal activities. The Gulf Cartel coerces migrants to commit crimes on its behalf, including drug trafficking and assassinations. While they wait for their smugglers to transport them across the border, migrants become extremely vulnerable to criminals in Matamoros and Reynosa.

Migrants following the eastern migration route arrive to Matamoros from either Veracruz or Saltillo. According to a migrant we interviewed in Saltillo, organized criminal groups have kidnapped migrants travelling by bus from Saltillo and forced them to join their ranks. According to him, these migrants are kidnapped and held captive once they reach the city of Matamoros. Organized crime members also move some migrants further south in the state to San Fernando or Ciudad Victoria. It is believed that the Gulf Cartel controls the recruitment of migrants in Matamoros.

Gulf Cartel members target migrants in different parts of the city. Locals we interviewed pointed at the bus station and the migrant shelter as places where criminals recurrently recruit migrants. Local experts are concerned with the wellbeing of migrants. They mentioned multiple occasions when cartel members kidnapped migrants from the shelter. Criminals wait for migrants at the bus station and demand them to provide a passcode in order to be allowed in the city. Nevertheless, even migrants who know the passcode are often forced to pay the criminals for the right to be in Matamoros. Local experts told us that kidnappings for ransom are a common occurrence in Matamoros.

Although forced recruitment is allegedly occurring in Matamoros, some experts informed us that it is difficult to discern between those who are forced to join and those who join voluntarily. One of the crimes that cartels force migrants to perform is drug smuggling. Some of the migrants we interviewed in Matamoros told us that cartel members forced them to carry backpacks with drugs into the United States. Experts also noted that criminals use migrants as lookouts, drivers, and even assassins. Local experts and human rights activists told us that while migrant women are often raped or sexually assaulted, they are not aware of cartels systematically kidnapping women for sexual servitude.

In Reynosa, organized crime is closely linked with human trafficking. Experts told us that migrants in Reynosa were unmolested while they waited to cross into the United States with the assistance of migrant smugglers. Nowadays, however, organized crime in Reynosa kidnaps, extorts, and force migrants to commit crimes. Extortion, ransom payment, and compelled labor for criminal activities usually take place in cartel’s safe houses. Migration experts and advocates reported that TCOs have now complete control over the illegal migration moving north.

Reynosa is a primary crossing point for migrants heading to the United States. This city’s support infrastructure for deported migrants is not as efficient as the one in Matamoros. Migrant rights advocates in Reynosa told us that they are concerned with the welfare of migrants arriving in the city.  Migrants in Reynosa are extremely vulnerable. Local migration analysts told us that organized crime in the city is connected to sexual exploitation, labor exploitation, and forced prostitution. Organized crime members have used kidnappings, extortion, and human trafficking to force migrants to join their ranks.

A migrant we interviewed told us that organized crime members forced him to smuggle a group of migrants into the United States. He told us he had to swim across the Rio Grande pulling on a rope tied to a raft carrying a group of people. When we asked him if he considered running away from his captors, he replied that the criminals threatened to kill the people on the raft if he tried to escape.

Local activists reported that migrant women are often victims of sexual servitude in activities including pornography and prostitution in Reynosa’s red light district known as “Boys’ Town.” The cartel also uses migrant women as forced domestic servants in their safe houses. Children and unaccompanied minors are particularly vulnerable, as well as the LGBT community, for human trafficking.