A 16-year-old Mexican boy had both of his index fingers cut off by members of an organized crime group in the port city of Acapulco after declining to traffic narcotics for the gang, according to a report last week by Mexico’s Imagen TV network.
“They put a board [under my hands] and hacked my fingers with a machete,” the unnamed boy told Imagen. “They also beat me with the board on my back.”
The teen was reportedly on his way home from a cousin’s birthday party when the taxi he was traveling in was run down and stopped by another vehicle. Armed men then forced him aboard.
“They held a gun on me because I didn’t want to get in that car,” he said. He was allegedly driven to another part of town, dragged out of the car, and punished for his defiance with the double amputation. When it was over his assailants abandoned the wounded and beaten adolescent on a bridge.
The mutilation occurred in October of this year, Humberto Padgett, the journalist who broke the story on Imagen’s popular Ciro Gómez program, told The Daily Beast. Padgett said he found the boy and his family in Tijuana, where they had come to seek shelter in the U.S. after receiving additional death threats in the weeks following the initial abduction and assault.
“[I] traveled to Tijuana to learn about the situation of migrants at the border,” Padgett said. “I came to follow up on a series of reports that I have done during the past year on how the violence of the cartels has emptied entire towns…”
Padgett found the boy, his parents, and five siblings staying in a shelter. “They are extremely poor people who are just beginning to understand that they have rights,” Padgett said, and added that the boy’s teenage and pre-teen sisters are also at risk of being forced into sexual trafficking due to the family’s precarious living conditions.
Cutting off fingers has long been practiced as a method of torture and intimidation by Mexican drug gangs, and even celebrities have been targeted. The son of famous crooner Vicente Fernández, who died earlier this month, also lost his pointer fingers after being kidnapped in 1998. But Padgett believes the practice of using disfigurement as a method to enforce enlistment could signal a new phase in cartel evolution.
“I have covered cases of violence of many kinds in Mexico for 20 years and I think that the case of this young man clearly represents a new trend in criminal organizations: slavery for criminal purposes,” he said.
(Padgett chose not to publish the name of the cartel or gang that disfigured the boy, fearing it could lead to further persecution against the family in Tijuana.)
“The inhuman practice of cutting off the index fingers from teenagers has become commonplace by Mexican cartels, especially the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, as punishment for refusing to work for them,” said Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former chief of international operations, in an interview with The Daily Beast.
“In order to expand and replenish their ranks, the cartels are now using torture and dismemberment as a brutal method of recruitment and subjugation,” Vigil said. “The mutilations send a clear and vivid message to others that they will meet the same fate if they refuse to comply with the demands of the cartels.”
Vigil also explained why criminal organizations choose to take certain digits, particularly the index fingers and thumbs, because they are “important to doing work-related functions. It makes [the victims] vulnerable to having to work for the cartels by selling drugs since doing that would not require the full use of their hands.”
Other techniques used for forced recruitment in similar fashion include torture and the breaking of bones for the sake of intimidation and to partially cripple the victims, said Vigil, who likened such dragooning to that done by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
“The cartels also use death threats against the victim’s families and that is one of the most hard-hitting tactics,” Vigil said.
Despite the threats facing the family, and the brutal treatment the boy has already suffered, it remains unclear if an asylum request will be formally granted through the U.S. court system.
“Immigration courts are wildly unpredictable. Those along the border are especially tough as a general rule,” said Dr. Chris Kyle, an anthropologist specializing in Mexico at the University of Arkansas at Birmingham, who has served as a witness in multiple asylum hearings for hopeful immigrants.
Kyle said that today’s asylum laws are outdated, as they were originally established in the wake of World War II to protect against threats by state actors.
“This is generally the hurdle that is most difficult to overcome for applicants from Latin America,” Kyle said, because “modern asylum applicants are most likely to be persecuted by criminal groups, not state authorities, without regard for religion, ethnicity, etcetera.”
Stephanie Brewer, a Mexico expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, said that obsolete laws often combine with unfair policies to further thwart asylum seekers at the southern border.
“Families fleeing violence currently have no legal path to seek asylum at the U.S. border, including ports of entry, because the Biden administration maintains the illegal and unjustified use of Title 42 to block and expel many asylum seekers,” Brewer said.
Brewer said that the inability to plead their case and legal points of entry often forces those fleeing violence to cross the border illegally, further putting themselves at risk due to the rugged desert terrain and predatory human smugglers.
Although Republicans in the U.S. often seek to portray Democrats as being soft on immigration, Brewer said President Biden is aiming to cut border arrivals and admissions, no matter the human cost.
“It has reached such a perverse level that some people within the administration seem to believe that simply re-opening access to the asylum system would be an undue ‘magnet’ for migration, when in fact this is just the government’s most basic obligation under domestic and international refugee law,” she said.
Journalist Padgett said the maimed boy and his family had requested an asylum appointment, and were still waiting for a date to be assigned. He said they were “not optimistic” because they have seen so few humanitarian visas granted during the several weeks they’ve already spent in Tijuana.
“On the contrary, these people see how the number of applicants grows every day and how, also every day, more people are deported,” Padgett said.