MATAMOROS, Mexico (Reuters) - Even after he was kidnapped and robbed outside the makeshift migrant camp where he had slept for two weeks, Luis Osorto decided his only chance for eventual asylum in the United States was to stay put along the border just inside Mexico.
But the 37-year-old Honduran made a pact with himself: not to leave the enclave of tents at the end of a bridge between Matamoros and Brownsville, Texas - not even to buy a bottle of water or to collect money transfers from his family back home.
The cramped camp, in a partly fenced-in plaza abutting administrative buildings just feet from the Rio Grande, is home to approximately 1,000 migrants, many of them sent back to Mexico to await U.S. immigration hearings under a policy called the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) begun this year.
After what is commonly known as an “express kidnapping” last month by men waiting in a van for him outside a convenience store where he was collecting a $100 transfer from relatives, Osorto promised himself he would only leave the camp to cross the bridge to Texas for his December court date with U.S. immigration authorities.
“I just wait here and trust someone else ... to get me 70 pesos ($3.50) or so when I need it,” he said.
MPP, sometimes called Remain in Mexico, is among various overlapping U.S. policies aimed at severely reducing asylum claims.
President Donald Trump, whose hardline stance on immigration was a mainstay of his 2016 campaign, has said lax U.S. asylum laws encourage people to show up at the border with their children.
Before MPP, it was common practice to release arriving families into the United States to wait out their U.S. court hearings – something Trump and others said allowed many migrants to disappear into the country to live illegally. Studies by legal aid groups, such as the Urban Justice Center, have shown that most asylum seekers show up for their hearings, however.
More than 51,000 people, mainly from Central America, have been sent to Mexico since the MPP program started in January, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
But reports of kidnapping and extortion have increased since the program was expanded to Matamoros and nearby Nuevo Laredo in crime-wracked Tamaulipas state.
Human Rights First, a U.S.-based rights group, in August documented 110 publicly reported cases of rape, kidnapping, sexual exploitation and other violence against MPP returnees.
In Matamoros, violence and abuse targeting migrants means many in the MPP program refuse to move to a shelter in the city during their long waits for a U.S. court hearing.
Since July, Matamoros has received more than 12,000 asylum seekers under MPP, said Enrique Maciel, of the Tamaulipas Institute for Migrants, a state agency.
Matamoros Mayor Mario Lopez described the city as calmer than neighboring towns, because of a truce between two rival drug cartels. Elsewhere in the state, gangs regularly fight pitched battles for turf.
Reuters spoke to six asylum seekers at Osorto’s camp who said they had been kidnapped or extorted, and several more who had brushes with suspected criminals near the border or elsewhere within Mexico.
Oscar Ramirez, a 30-year-old Honduran waiting for a U.S. court date on Dec. 2, said three Mexican men surrounded him around midnight last month, and began interrogating him on his plans and his paperwork, he said.
“I was terrified,” said Ramirez, who said he ran away from the men when a crowd of people arrived. “The rumors circulating are that at any moment unknown people will kidnap you.”
Reuters was unable to independently corroborate the migrants’ stories. Osorto said he did not report the attack on him to police.
Kristin Clarens, a U.S. attorney who advises asylum-seekers at the border, said she had come across five cases of migrants in Matamoros awaiting MPP hearings who were kidnapped briefly. They were taken to an ATM to clear out their accounts or forced to phone relatives to send cash transfers to a nearby convenience store.
A spokesman for Mexico’s National Institute for Migration said it had no data on such complaints. Mexico’s national rights ombudsman said it was checking for data.
The Tamaulipas state Attorney General’s Office and the federal Attorney General’s Office declined to comment. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment about the dangers in Tamaulipas.
In Osorto’s camp, asylum seekers use water from the Rio Grande to wash, despite outbreaks of rashes. Women pay a small fee to use a nearby toilet. For food, tents, and the occasional yoga mat to lie on they depend on volunteers from across the border.
At night, couples take turns keeping watch over their children, fearful criminals will snatch them if they both sleep.
Early last month, a Honduran mother and daughter seeking asylum drowned in the river near the camp, in what the Honduran foreign ministry said was an act of desperation after three month’s wait in Mexico.
Glady Canas, director of Matamoros-based migrant-aid nonprofit Helping Them to Triumph, said she has tried in vain to convince families to move into the city’s lone migrant shelter and its neat dormitories.
A U.S. Supreme Court decision last month allowed the Trump administration to reject asylum for anyone who passed through a third country, such as Mexico, and did not apply for asylum there.
Trump had earlier threatened to impose tariffs on Mexico unless it stopped more migrants, and the U.S. neighbor has since used its military police to contain migration northward.
Clarens, the U.S. attorney, said Trump’s policies were effectively blocking most routes to asylum.
“It’s like a complicated chess game and this is like checkmate,” she said.
In the Matamoros camp, asylum-seekers fret on a shared What’s App group, or aloud, while trying to discern U.S. policy means for them.
“They are attacking our minds,” 27-year-old Oscar Borjas, said of shifting U.S. policy, shuffling a deck of cards late one night in an alleyway between tents.
Osorto, who fled violence in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, said fear and a feeling of being powerless were inescapable.
“We don’t go downtown because they say it’s more dangerous,” he said. But wincing as he glanced out over the tents, he added: “There’s nothing to do here.”
Reporting by Delphine Schrank; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Tom Brown