When the Mexican army discovered a tunnel under the U.S.-Mexico border in February, it found 17 Mexican immigrants who were allegedly turned into slave laborers. The group was being held hostage by a Tijuana criminal organization and forced to dig the tunnel for three months.
The immigrants, who were headed to the U.S., are being held in a Tijuana penitentiary while their involvement in the tunnel's construction is investigated, according to Mexican paper El Universal. Victims told the paper that they were handed over to a local criminal known as "Juanito" who kept them in a warehouse just 600 feet from a border checkpoint. He threatened to kill them if anyone left. Most of the immigrants who helped build the tunnel were reportedly fooled into the job by sketchy middlemen who promised assistance in crossing the U.S. border.
"I was in Tijuana looking for someone to cross me over into the United States, and I met a man who said that he had a friend who could do it," a victim who went by the name Jose de Jesus told El Universal. "He dropped me off at a warehouse, and when I entered it they told me that I had to work digging, or else they would kill my family."
It certainly appears that Juanito's threats to kill anyone who attempted to escape the tunnel site were successful. Mexican soldiers found the site in February and none of the immigrants had tried to leave in the two months since construction started. Even when the site was raided by the army, none of the immigrants attempted to flee, according to testimonies from Mexican soldiers.
Immigrants being used as slaves for criminal organizations is a common issue in Mexico. Officials estimate that at least 19,000 immigrants are kidnapped every year by criminal organizations as they attempt to make their way to the U.S. Many are taken for ransom and released when hefty payments are made, but some are also forced to work as domestic servants, prostitutes and even as "mules" who take drugs across the border.
Last year, the Mexican politics website Animal Politico compiled an investigation on these "slaves" of drug trafficking organizations. It suggested that cartels in Mexico were even capturing engineers and forcing them to build underground telecom networks to help cartel members communicate with each other without having their messages intercepted by police.
Alberto Xicoténcatl, who is one of the managers of the Belen Migrants Shelter in the northern Mexican city of Saltillo, says that it is extremely rare for immigrants who are forced into slavery to escape.
Xicoténcatl says that, of the roughly 6,000 migrants his shelter hosted last year, 20 told shelter staff that they had been in situations where they were forced to work for criminal groups.
"It is something that almost none of them want to talk about because they fear repercussions," Xicoténcatl said. "But those who have discussed this situation with us say that they are held in warehouses, or ranches, where dozens of others are held."
Staffers of the Belen Migrants Shelter have been consistently threatened for attempting to protect immigrants on their way to the U.S., with several staff having received death threats over the phone. In December, the priest who runs the Belen shelter had his car broken into as well, and documents with information about the shelter's staff were stolen.
The Belen shelter is now under 24-hour surveillance from state police, and has installed "panic buttons" that connect the shelter directly to municipal authorities.