MATAMOROS, Mexico — A young girl and her brother offer a smile and a happy song as they wander through cars, lined up to cross the border into the U.S. 

If fortune allows they someday will make the crossing themselves to a world so many from their native land have dreamed about.

Apart from their desire for a better life in America, the adults all have something else in common—they will risk their lives to travel hundreds of miles just to reach the other side.

Near the international bridge in Reynosa, Mexico, is where we met Christopher Centeno, a 21-year-old Honduran migrant who said he has just been released by gang members who had kidnapped him and held him for ransom for nearly three weeks.

“We paid. Our family had to pay the ransom. We want a shelter to help us because they took even our phones,” Centeno said. 

Centeno’s experience is all too common across Mexico. 

The Gulf Cartel controls most of the State of Tamaulipas, where crimes against migrants are higher than anywhere else in Mexico, according to a 2018 study by the Strauss Center for International Security and Law. The study found that local gangs and criminal organizations like the Gulf, The Zetas, The Sinaloa and Tijuana cartels routinely prey on vulnerable migrants through kidnappings, extortion, robbery, assault, even sexual assaults. 

On January 19, several bodies were found burned to death in two vehicles just across the border near McAllen, Texas. Three of the dead were reportedly cartel members. Law enforcement officials in Texas believe the others were Guatemalan migrants headed to the U.S. It's believed the murderers were Mexican police working with the cartels. 

“According to reports, police officers in Mexico killed all 19 people and then they burned the vehicle to destroy the evidence. So corruption at its finest, violence at its finest,” said Victor Escalon.  

Immigration attorney Charlene D’Cruz has worked with migrants seeking asylum for the past three decades. 

“The Cartel presence in Matamoros has made it so dangerous, all over Mexico, but especially in the border towns and the Cartel presence in Matamoros is very, very high,” D’Cruz said.

Most of D’Cruz’s clients have navigated the treacherous path from Central America to the Matamoros-Brownsville border, many not fully aware of the threat from the cartels.

“But remember they are being extorted all the way up,” she said. “They are going from one territory to another, to another all the way sometimes all the way from Ecuador.”

In addition to a grueling trek by bus, train or foot, most have paid their life savings, sometimes several thousands of dollars, to smugglers to ensure passage through Mexico, only to be terrorized. 

Pastor Abraham Barberi works with these migrants every day at his Bible Institute in Matamoros. He and his staff house and feed more than 80 of them every day. He knows their stories and their desperation. He said they risk everything to escape poverty and torment for a chance for a new life in America.

“But they don’t really know until they get here. But they are so desperate that even though they have heard that they are going to encounter danger on their way to the border, they are willing to take that danger and they are willing to take risks. They are so desperate,” Barberi said. 

Both Barberi and D’Cruz share the frustration of knowing there is only so much they can do and so few who can actually help.