NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — The kidnappers came to the shelter near the U.S.-Mexico border looking for Cuban migrants, favored targets because relatives in the United States are known to pay exorbitant ransoms to free abducted loved ones.

In cartel-dominated Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, a gateway to the United States, it’s a lucrative racket: Snatch a migrant from Cuba, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Venezuela or elsewhere; commandeer their cellphones; then call U.S. relatives demanding thousands of dollars.

No need to spell out the consequences of nonpayment in the lawless Mexican border state of Tamaulipas, known for mass graves and massacres of migrants — including hundreds slain by gunmen of the Zetas cartel outside the town of San Fernando in 2010-11.

On Aug. 3, when the Rev. Aaron Mendez, an evangelical pastor and head of the Amar shelter, refused the kidnappers’ demands, the thugs took him away.

The pastor entered the twilight world of Mexico’s “disappeared” — officially 37,000 and growing, with Tamaulipas state leading Mexico in the grisly statistic. Federal and state police are investigating what happened to Mendez, said Ivan Moyle, a spokesman for the Tamaulipas prosecutor’s office, who declined to comment further.

The case has dramatized the systematic fashion of abductions and shakedowns faced by migrants and others at an especially sensitive time — when U.S. authorities have been expelling tens of thousands of Central Americans, Cubans and others back to Mexico’s crime-ridden border cities under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, known informally as “Remain in Mexico.”

Under the program, rolled out in January in the border cities of Tijuana and San Diego — and later expanded to other U.S.-Mexico crossings — more than 37,500 U.S.-bound migrants have been returned to Mexico to wait for U.S. court hearings. Many intend to seek political asylum in the U.S.

More than 3,000 have been dispatched across the Rio Grande to Tamaulipas since the program was extended in July. Mexican authorities provide little housing or other aid to the returnees, who are often left to fend for themselves.

Extortion-minded mobs view vulnerable migrants as walking ATMs. They are easy prey, lacking family ties in Mexico and known to have U.S. relatives with access to dollars. Mob halcones — hawks, or lookouts — watch bus stations and other strategic spots, eyeing potential quarry.

Though drug trafficking provides the bulk of cartel income, Mexico’s organized crime groups are multibillion-dollar conglomerates that also control migrant smuggling, kidnapping and other illicit ventures, working in cahoots with corrupt police and politicians.

“There is no protection,” said Father Julio Lopez, a Catholic priest who runs the Casa de Migrante Nazareth shelter in Nuevo Laredo.

Three Honduran migrant families who returned to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols recently recounted in interviews with the Los Angeles Times how gangsters kidnapped them, obliging relatives in the United States to pay ransoms. All three said they had alerted U.S. immigration officials that they had been abducted in Mexico — but were nonetheless sent back to Mexico.

U.S. authorities say multiple factors are considered when determining whether apprehended migrants should be sent back to Mexico, including whether they face persecution or torture. Claims by migrants are documented, authorities said, but fear of being kidnapped does not necessarily disqualify detainees from being sent back to Mexico.

“One of our main priorities in the U.S. Border Patrol is the safety and the well-being of the people that we apprehend,” said Jose A. Martinez, acting assistant chief Border Patrol agent in Laredo, Texas.

The State Department has slapped its highest security alert on Tamaulipas, noting that “armed criminal groups target public and private passenger buses as well as private automobiles traveling through Tamaulipas, often taking passengers hostage and demanding ransom payments.”

Beti Suyapa Ortega, 36, said she was unaware of the extent of the danger when she boarded a Mexican public bus last month headed for the U.S. border with her son, Robinson Javier Melara, 17. The single mother of five from the northern Honduran state of Yoro said she was fleeing maras, or gangs, that demanded weekly extortion payments at her family’s grocery store.

“The maras in Honduras are bad, but here I think they are even worse,” Ortega said.

Ortega spoke in a sweltering ground-floor waiting room in the concrete compound of Mexico’s immigration agency in Nuevo Laredo, where she and others fearful of going outside lingered for hours on plastic chairs and mats strewn on the floor.

On Aug. 4, Ortega said, she and her son were on a bus when a group of about 10 men flagged the vehicle down on the outskirts of Nuevo Laredo. The gangsters demanded that passengers produce identification and forced all foreigners off the vehicle, she said.

Ortega and her son were taken to a house where about a dozen other migrants were being held, she said, and the kidnappers grabbed her phone. They found the number of her younger brother, who had arrived in Atlanta a few months earlier. The captors snapped photos of Ortega and her son and dispatched the images to her brother, demanding $8,000 for their release, she said.

“If he didn’t pay, they said they would turn us over to ‘other people,’” Ortega said, trembling as she recalled the ominous words. “My brother said it would take him time to raise the money, that he had just arrived, but please not to do anything to us.”

Ortega and her son were held for two weeks in a room with others, sleeping on the floor, receiving two daily meals — mostly beans and rice — and spending much of the time bored and watching a large flat-screen TV, she said. Her jailers did not physically harm anyone, she said, but angrily called the captives’ relatives in the United States daily, insisting on the payments.

Her brother in Atlanta was instructed to deposit the funds electronically in five different U.S. bank accounts, Ortega said.

On Aug. 18, when the money had been paid, Ortega said, she and her son were driven to a spot along the Rio Grande, where the cartel strictly controls illicit crossings, and taken across in an inflated tire tube.

Ortega and her son were detained in U.S. custody in Texas for two nights, she said, before being released with a court date of Dec. 10 in San Antonio.

“We told them (U.S. immigration authorities) we had been kidnapped, but they didn’t believe us,” Ortega said.

On Aug. 20, U.S. Border Patrol officers returned Ortega, her son and 18 other distraught migrants on foot to Nuevo Laredo across the Juarez-Lincoln International Bridge, in a sullen procession repeated here daily beneath the blazing sun. Many clutched transparent plastic bags emblazoned with the seal of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and containing notices to appear in immigration court.

But Ortega said she had no intention of sticking around Nuevo Laredo. She and fellow migrants were waiting for bus transport to Tapachula, a Mexican city near the Guatemalan border. The one-way rides are a Mexican government initiative that serves a double purpose — removing discouraged migrants from the perilous border zone, while also diminishing the chances that they will make the long and hazardous trip back for U.S. court dates.

“We’ve had enough,” Ortega said.

Also waiting for the bus was Maria Suyapa Rodriguez, 35, and her 12-year-old son. She and her son, she said, had also been kidnapped — on Aug. 15 at the Nuevo Laredo bus terminal. The two were released two days later when her sister in New York agreed to pay a ransom, said Rodriguez, who did not know the amount. The pair subsequently crossed the Rio Grande, she said, and surrendered to the Border Patrol, which returned them to Mexico.

Like Ortega, Rodriguez said she had given up and would forgo her Jan. 10 U.S. court date and return home to Honduras.

Among the recent clients at Casa de Migrante Nazareth was Rosa Emilia Torrez, 45, her husband and her two children, a 12-year-old son and an infant daughter. Kidnappers grabbed the family at the Nuevo Laredo bus station July 21, Torrez said, two days after U.S. immigration authorities expelled them back to Nuevo Laredo.

Their captors released the family July 28, according to Torrez, after her brother-in-law in New Orleans paid $16,000, negotiated down from an initial demand of $32,000.

The kidnappers, Torrez said, then insisted on taking the family back across the Rio Grande to Texas, where, Torrez said, the Border Patrol arrested the family again.

Torrez said she tried to explain to the agents that the kidnappers forced them to return to the U.S. side — and that they feared being sent back to Mexico yet again — but no one paid any attention.

“We just take your fingerprints and send you back to Mexico,” the Border Patrol agent told her, Torrez said.

U.S. immigration authorities returned the family to Nuevo Laredo on Aug. 1, said Torrez, who added that her family plans to find safe housing somewhere in Mexico and show up for their immigration hearing in Texas later this month.

“We came this far,” Torrez said. “We aren’t turning back now.”

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(Los Angeles Times staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston and Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.)

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PHOTOS (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): MEXICO-MIGRANTS-NUEVOLAREDO

GRAPHIC (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): Nuevo Laredo

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