17 days in captivity along the US-Mexico border

As Biden and Trump visit US-Mexico border, MSF raises the alarm on increasing dangers faced by migrants seeking safety in the US.

A migrant woman's hands folded on her lap

Mexico 2024 © MSF


MSF statement on the visits of President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump to the US-Mexico border

"We deplore the difficulties and obstacles to access asylum and protection imposed on migrants and the use of migration as an electoral bargaining chip by US politicians," said Gemma Domínguez, general coordinator of MSF in Mexico. "Our teams on the Mexico-US border and throughout Mexico are witnesses to the suffering and risks faced by migrants along the migration routes. They face these risks because migration is criminalized, forcing people to take more dangerous routes. We demand more humane immigration policies, so that migrants don’t risk their lives and safety trying to reach the United States. We repeat that seeking asylum is not a crime."

In the Mexican northern border cities of Reynosa, Matamoros, and Piedras Negras, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams have documented an increase in the number of patients who were kidnaped or experienced sexual violence either during their migration journey or at the US-Mexico border.

From October to December 2023, MSF recorded a 70 percent increase in consultations for sexual violence in Reynosa and Matamoros, compared to the prior three months. Many people experienced sexual violence while being held in captivity.

“I was not like this before, I knew how to cope with problems, but now I find it hard,” said Camila*, crying, as she sat in a shelter for migrants in Matamoros, in Mexico’s northern Taumalipas state. Camila carries both mental and physical trauma from the atrocities she experienced in northeastern Mexico.

Camila's testimony 1

Camila's testimony 2

In August 2023, Camila fled political persecution against herself and her family in her home country of Nicaragua. Except for being commanded to pay money at checkpoints along the migration route north to the United States, she says her journey was smooth until she arrived in San Luis Potosi—in a state of the same name about halfway between Mexico City and the eastern US-Mexico border.

"The bus was full, and they took us all off,” she said. “Only one Mexican family was left on. They put us on some buses and sent us back to Guatemala.” Camila did not give up her attempt to reach safety in the US. and She tried again, and this time she managed to reach the city of Monterrey—about 300 miles further north than San Luis Potosi—where she bought a bus ticket to the border city of Reynosa.

Held for 17 days in captivity 

"During the trip, we were kidnapped, and that's when the worst started,” Camila said. “They took us to a house where they separated us into men and women. We had to stand because there was no room for more people. At night some men came and took only the women out of the house. They raped us continually, one after another. They had no mercy.”

After 17 days, Camila was released in Matamoros, another border city about a one-hour drive east of Reynosa. She was given a bed in one of the few shelters for migrants in the city. "I came to MSF because I was feeling very bad,” she said. “I could not reconcile the moments of tranquility [with what I had experienced]. I have moments of crisis, for example when I am having a coffee and I can't hold back my tears when I remember what happened to me. The psychologists have helped me a lot. I am having treatment and I know that I still have a long way to go before I can return to how I was.”

Migrants living in tents along the US-Mexico border.
After crossing several countries and the Darien jungle, people of various nationalities arrive in Mexico to find immense adversities. Mexico 2024 © MSF

A common experience 

Unfortunately, according to MSF staff in Reynosa and Matamoros, stories like Camila's are becoming more common. "In recent months we have seen an increase in cases related to kidnapping and sexual violence against migrants,” said MSF Project Coordinator Pooja Iyer. “Our patients tell us that during captivity they are mistreated, they do not receive sufficient or quality food, and most of the women are victims of sexual abuse and violence."

In Piedras Negras, a city in Coahuila state just across the border from Eagle Pass, TX, MSF teams say their patients face similar dangers. 

Rosaura* is a Venezuelan woman who was kidnapped and sexually abused by her captors for a week. Unable to pay the kidnappers for her release, she missed a vital appointment with US immigration authorities. She now experiences serious mental health issues

"These violent events have a serious impact on people's physical and emotional health,” said MSF project coordinator Ryan Ginter. “The consequences range from bruises and physical trauma to unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, symptoms of anxiety, depression, acute stress, and post-traumatic stress. These require comprehensive and immediate attention to avoid greater impacts in the future.” Ginter adds that when most migrants arrive the US border —including those who have experienced violence—they are turned away.

Illustration of a migrant woman and children standing beside a river

Illustration of a migrant woman embracing her three children.

Barriers to seeking asylum 

Migrants arriving at the southern US border must obtain an appointment with US immigration authorities through an online application process known as “CBP One”. The CBP One app is one of the few legal avenues available to migrants to apply for asylum and protection in the US. But many migrants in Mexico report having to wait several months to secure an appointment, while others are unable even to apply. Even those who already have an appointment are often turned back by Mexican authorities at the Rio Grande. This causes great distress and uncertainty.

"Many people cannot access a smartphone to carry out the procedure, or cannot pay the costs of the internet connection, while others cannot [read] Spanish or have difficulties reading and writing,” said Iyer. 

Migrants sit in a circle with MSF teams in Mexico.
"These violent events have a serious impact on people's physical and emotional health,” said MSF project coordinator Ryan Ginter. Mexico 2024 © MSF

Sofia* and Ligia* are sisters who fled Honduras four months ago after several family members were murdered. They both have four children, but decided to travel with their younger ones and leave the older children in the care of a relative. "In Coahuila, we had to walk for more than eight hours in the cold night to reach a shelter in the chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Rio Bravo,” said Sofia as she prepared food for her family in the shelter. “The youngest children were no longer crying—they almost couldn’t move because of the cold. We have no cell phone, no appointment, and we don't know what to do." 

“Although the CBP One process undoubtedly represents a small step forward in the objective of organizing [migration] flows,” said Iyer, “this tool has proved inadequate for managing the processes of legal entry for people seeking [safety] and security in the US.” 

Authorities must do more

From October 2023 to January 2024, MSF’s mental health and social work teams in Reynosa and Matamoros provided care to 395 people who had been victims of violence, as well as 129 people who had been kidnapped and later released. In January 2024, MSF teams in northern Mexico assisted 28 survivors of sexual violence—more than in any month in the previous year. 

During 2023 in Piedras Negras, MSF teams provided care to 95 survivors of sexual violence and 177 people who had experienced other types of violence, including kidnappings, beatings, threats, and the forced disappearance of family members either during their journey north or at the US-Mexico border. 

MSF once again calls on Mexican and US authorities to increase their efforts to provide comprehensive care to migrants, to expand legal migration channels, and to provide better shelter, with adequate and dignified services for people on the move. 

*Names changed to protect identities.