Marlon Márquez, a Honduran who lives in Miami, appears to be a typical undocumented immigrant from Central America.
But he is far from that. He crossed the border near McAllen, Texas, as a hostage of people who claimed to belong to the powerful Mexican criminal gang Los Zetas who then turned him over to an allied group on the U.S. side.
These gang members kept Marquez hostage until local police and federal agents rescued him and other Central American captives during a raid in 2008 in San Marcos, Texas.
While the raid has been publicized before, Márquez’s account provides possible evidence of the presence of Los Zetas inside the United States and of a possible link to migrant smugglers on the American side of the border.
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Marquez said two armed men who said they belonged to Los Zetas escorted him and about 30 other migrants into the United States and then delivered them to captors in San Marcos, a city between San Antonio and Austin more than 200 miles from the border.
Marquez recounted his extraordinary journey during a recent interview in Little Havana where he now lives.
Federal officials involved in the San Marcos investigation said they could not find any evidence of Zeta connection, but did not rule it out.
“Special agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) identified no Zeta cartel affiliation with any of the individuals identified during the 2008 San Marcos, Texas, HSI human smuggling investigation and the resulting prosecution,” according to a statement from Deputy Special Agent in Charge Aristides Jiménez of the HSI San Antonio office. “Although HSI found no connection to the Zeta cartel during its investigation, that possibility cannot be totally discounted.”
Marquez traveled to the United States for the first time as an undocumented immigrant in 2004 to join his family in Miami. Marquez returned to Honduras four years later because he couldn’t find a job.
But the situation was no better in Honduras and, after only three months in his hometown of San Pedro Sula, Marquez decided to return to Miami by making another illegal trip across the Mexican border.
“I joined two friends and a guide and we traveled in buses from Honduras to Veracruz in Mexico where we needed to catch a train,” Marquez recalled. Veracruz is a major Mexican seaport facing the Gulf of Mexico.
As the group checked into train schedules to the border, they ran into Marquez’s father, Enrique, who also was trying to sneak back into the United States after a prior deportation.
Then the group encountered a man who knew one of women traveling with Marquez. He offered to put them in contact with people who would take them all the way to Houston for a cheap price. Marquez, his father and their friends agreed to travel with the man’s contacts, instead of the train.
That was a fateful decision.
The people who gave them a ride essentially kidnapped Marquez and his group, but they did not realize it until they arrived in Reynosa, a Mexican border city across from McAllen, Texas.
“The problem became clear when we arrived at this big two-story mansion in Reynosa where supposedly we were going to stay before we crossed the border,” said Marquez. “That’s where we saw the reality of our situation.”
When they walked in, they found dozens of people crowded into every available space in the house, Marquez said.
“We saw people holding weapons, some very big, and other people were clearly captives,” Marquez said. “They told us the rules. That we had to pay $3,500 plus $1,000 per person for the trip from Veracruz to Reynosa.”
Marquez then talked to some of the other hostages and a few told him they had been living in the house for more than a year because their relatives had been unable to pay for the ransom. Marquez said he also witnessed several episodes of mistreatment and psychological torture that the hostages suffered at the hands of the armed guards who identified themselves as Zetas.
“I saw how a woman was beaten because her relative refused to pay,” Marquez said, adding that the guards let everyone listen to telephone conversations between hostages and relatives via a public address system inside the house. The reason for this appeared to be a pressure tactic to make everyone aware of what would happen if their relatives did not pay.
When the woman screamed from the beating, her relative quickly agreed to pay the ransom.
Marquez said he called his wife and she quickly wired the money via Western Union. But that was not the end of Marquez’s nightmarish odyssey.
A month after Marquez’s wife paid the ransom, about 30 hostages — including Marquez and his father — were taken to the south bank of the Rio Grande. Marquez said the group spent three days on the river bank while the armed guards watched Border Patrol movements on the American side.
Finally one evening, the armed guards ordered the hostages to swim across the river toward the U.S. side. Two of the guards swam across with the group, Marquez said. The group, including the two guards, walked for about two or three days until they reached a ranch.
There, the group of hostages and the two guards boarded two waiting vehicles — a van and a pickup truck. They drove for more than half an hour until they reached a mobile home park in San Marcos.
“We were happy because we felt we were about to be released,” Marquez said.
But their hearts sank when armed people in one of the San Marcos mobile homes ordered them to strip to their undergarments.
A woman then showed up to address the group.
“She told us to forget the deal we made in Mexico,” Marquez said. “Here it’s another deal, she told us, and you have to pay an additional $4,500 to go free.”
Marquez called his wife again. This time, she called a cousin in Austin for help and he contacted the police. “A detective called my wife and set up a phone wiretap.”
On July 16, 2008, a Hays County, Texas magistrate issued a search warrant for a mobile home at the Regency Mobile Home Park. The nine-page search warrant listed Marquez and his father among the hostages.
When police and federal agents showed up they busted through the door.
“We heard a loud boom at the door, and the door crashed down and armed men in SWAT uniforms rushed in,” Marquez recalled.
More than a dozen people were arrested and prosecuted in the case. Court documents said the migrant smugglers had been operating in San Marcos since 2003 and had netted about $1 million in ransom payments.
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