‘It’s starting’: Cartel threat looms as migrants surge in Reynosa

New challenges lie ahead for Rio Grande Valley-based organizations helping thousands of migrants either sent back to or arriving in Reynosa, a Mexican border town known for its active organized criminal organizations.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is expelling hundreds of migrants on a daily basis under a federal health code known as Title 42. Families, pregnant women and men are ending up in Reynosa a block away from the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge at a park with a large gazebo where volunteers and migrants have reported kidnappings.

“Yesterday, there’s a family living under a tarp attached to the gazebo in Reynosa, which is the beginning of a tent city like it was in Matamoros,” Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, a cofounder of the Sidewalk School, said Saturday. “So it’s starting.”

Rangel-Samponaro helped create the Sidewalk School about two years ago when families were sent back to Mexico and forced to wait for their U.S. immigration court hearings under the now-defunct Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as Remain in Mexico.

Volunteers helped feed, shelter and educate migrant children throughout different border communities, including Matamoros, where an encampment began with a few migrants living on the Mexican side of the bridge. Over time, the group grew to more than 2,000 people and became an infamous MPP site.

Reynosa appears to be heading in a similar direction, Rangel-Samponaro said.

“If you walk around the plaza today, you’ll see where families have set up their living areas outside of the gazebo and just living on the plaza,” she said. “The only thing they’re missing right now is just a tent. That’s it, but they’re starting to make their homes out there. I think this is about to turn into something else that no one was expecting in Reynosa.”

Unlike Matamoros, there is no solid coalition of non-governmental organizations helping migrants in Reynosa. Organizations like Team Brownsville began taking food over to the Mexican encampment before it formed and when families were no longer released at the U.S. bus station.

The pandemic, the conclusion of MPP and the release of migrant families into the United States played a role in the shift of services.

“We’re pretty much going to stick with helping at the bus station,” Sergio Cordova, a cofounder of Team Brownsville, said. “It’s a huge undertaking. People are being dropped off anywhere from 150 to 250 a day. That is keeping us really, really busy.”

Team Brownsville is dedicating resources and volunteers to prepare migrant families traveling for days at a time to their families and sponsors in the United States.

Cordova said they’re helping with baby formula, diapers, fruit, hygiene products and weekend meals.

Angry Tias and Abuelas formed to help migrants in Reynosa over two years ago, but they shifted to help in Matamoros until they were asked to stop visiting.

“When COVID hit, that was when we really started telling folks, ‘Don’t come down,’” Joyce Hamilton, a cofounder of Angry Tias and Abuelas, said.

“We stopped going into the camp at that point, at the request of GRM,” she said, referring to the clinic set up at the camp.

Both Team Brownsville and Angry Tias and Abuelas found other ways to help people already living in Reynosa and Matamoros.

Cordova said they’re assisting a church providing shelter to migrants in Matamoros. Angry Tias and Abuelas donations continue to support shelters in Reynosa, Hamilton said.

Migrants in Reynosa continue to arrive and gather in large numbers at the gazebo. Rangel-Samponaro continues going into the city and meeting with volunteers based in Mexico but always travels with caution.

“These places are very different than Matamoros, and people need to also understand that,” she stressed.

Five volunteers, some of whom are asylum seekers, are providing food for 200 migrants a day. Some funding from Sidewalk School is used to build a school at a hotel where migrants are staying.

A majority of those hotel rooms are paid by the organization and donations from Angry Tias and Abuelas. Other assistance is sent to one of two long-term shelters in Reynosa where they are constructing more room to expand their capacity.

While Rangel-Samponaro is seeing the need increase on a daily basis, she said they’re not accepting help from American volunteers asking to go into Reynosa like they were in Matamoros.

“We’re not bringing any Americans into this because of the cartels,” she said. “We just keep ourselves safe at all times, and we keep our heads down and mind our business. But we try not to dwell on the cartel part because if you do, then you’re not going to cross because the threat is very real.”

Rangel-Samporano said she noticed the presence of Mexican federal law enforcement at the gazebo beginning last week after migrants reported the kidnappings.

Migrants arriving from the United States and going to the gazebo also are given a choice to stay at a newly opened government shelter, though some, fearing deportation, distrust the government and refuse to go.

Many continue arriving and joining the crowd staying at the public square, waiting for their chance to request asylum in the United States. Rangel-Samponaro said she has noticed more people pitching tarps, even blankets, as temporary homes.

Though on-the-ground assistance is not advised in Mexico, all organizations — Angry Tias and Abuelas, Team Brownsville and Sidewalk School — are accepting monetary donations through their websites and help on the U.S. side of the border.