EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Mexican police have arrested two men they say shot the driver of a public transportation bus carrying 42 migrants late Wednesday in Juarez.
The attack involving at least three vehicles carrying armed men was likely a hijacking attempt, as migrants have become a commodity to drug cartels, said Chihuahua state police Chief Gilberto Loya.
“Organized criminal gangs are financing their operations through migrant trafficking. This is happening all over the state, but more so along the border,” Loya said Thursday in a news conference in Juarez. “Right now, all polleros (smugglers) are directly linked to organized crime.”
The incident took place south of Juarez. The bus came under attack after picking up 42 migrants at an undisclosed location.
“Three vehicles tried to cut off the bus, they fired some shots and yelled for the driver to stop. The driver closed the door and drove away,” Loya said.
The attackers fired again and wounded the driver on the shoulder. Mexican news media reported the assailants abducted the migrants, but police officials on Thursday said 29 migrants and two of their would-be abductors were promptly located.
“That was yesterday. Today we found additional migrants walking along railroad tracks in the area and also located two of the vehicles involved” in the attack, Loya said. Some of the 42 are still missing, he acknowledged.
Mexican authorities said the migrants were unharmed and received a medical screening and food before being taken to the Kiki Romero municipal shelter. Most of them were from Venezuela and Colombia.
Asked if the migrants were picked up from a “safe house” in Juarez and were being transported to a clandestine crossing spot along the border by another gang, Loya said he did not have those details.
“We don’t criminalize migration; we don’t criminalize migrants. We go after those who exploit migrants,” the police chief said, adding the bus driver denies being part of a migrant smuggling gang. “The driver did not self-incriminate … our priority was to assist him after he was shot in the shoulder.”
The two detainees have been questioned, Loya said, but declined to identify the gang or cartel they work for.
Wednesday night’s incident would be the seventh mass abduction attempt of migrants reported in Juarez in the past three years. The last one took place just last week inside the Tierra de Oro migrant shelter. In that incident, criminals knocked down the gate with the back of a pickup truck and began lining up women and children separately from the men before a passing police car apparently spooked them.
Instances of gang members breaking into shelters thinking they were safe houses run by a rival group also have been reported, and Loya does not discount the possibility this is still happening.
“It’s probable this may happen,” Loya said at the news conference. “Gangs are territorial. They are in a constant battle with (the government) and, from that territorial point of view, they are fighting for the merchandise – and they see migrants as merchandise, not human beings.”
Mexican police have been holding meetings in recent weeks to discuss how to respond to cartel involvement in migrant smuggling, which has grown exponentially since the fall of 2018 but has picked up dramatically in the past year and a half. That trend coincides with the spike in migrant encounters north of the U.S.-Mexico border.