In this photo from Dec. 14, 2019, Honduran asylum-seeker Ashlee Sanchez, 14 (center) holds Naomi, 6, as they and Genesis (left), 9, FaceTime a relative at the temporary tent camps in Matamoros, Mexico.

DALLAS — The kidnapping of four Black Americans — and the killing of two of them — in the northern Mexico border city of Matamoros has sparked fear among Black migrants and raised concerns among aid workers who say Black asylum-seekers have long been targeted by drug cartels.

For years, Felicia Rangel-Samponaro has provided food, books and shelter for asylum-seekers in Matamoros and Reynosa. The racism in Mexico against Black immigrants and Black U.S. citizens, including herself, has been pervasive, she said.

She and other aid workers say Black migrants have been targeted by drug cartels with rape, extortion, kidnapping and violence. So much so that, as news spread of the kidnapping of Americans, many Haitian migrants cleared out of a Matamoros camp last weekend and left for Reynosa.

Rangel-Samponaro, co-founder of the Sidewalk School aid group, spoke with anger and disgust when she described last Friday’s tragic events in blunt terms: “Killing Black people in the middle of the street in broad daylight.”

While it’s not clear that the four Americans were targeted because of their race, a former U.S. law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation confirmed to The Dallas Morning News that U.S. and Mexican officials are examining the possibility that the assailants mistook the Americans for Haitian smugglers.

A relative of one of the victims said Monday that the four had traveled together from the Carolinas so one of them could get a tummy tuck from a doctor in Matamoros.

Mexican authorities said it was likely that the Americans were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Shortly after entering Mexico, the Americans were caught in the crossfire of rival cartel groups. A video showed them being loaded into the back of a pickup truck by gunmen.

The survivors — identified as Latavia McGee and Eric Williams — were taken to Valley Regional Medical Center with an FBI escort. On Thursday, two hearses carrying the bodies of Shaeed Woodard and Zindell Brown crossed the international bridge to Brownsville, where the remains were handed over to U.S. authorities, according to the Associated Press.

Whatever factors led to the kidnapping and killing of the Americans, the violence has heightened public awareness of the mistreatment of Black immigrants in Mexico.

Human Rights First, a nonprofit advocacy group, reported last year that “Black asylum seekers from Cameroon, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica and other countries continue to be targets of sometimes deadly violence and discrimination while stranded in or transiting through Mexico.”

The organization tracked more than 13,000 cases where migrants experienced violence and abuse, such as rape, extortion and even death, during the Biden administration.

Among those attacked, a Senegalese man was shot and killed “in broad daylight” in a Tijuana Park in October. In another case, a Haitian man died of a heart attack in Tijuana when he was unable to receive adequate medical care. His funeral was one of a dozen held since December 2021 for Haitians who died or were killed in Mexico while waiting to apply for asylum, according to the Human Rights First report.

Among the horrors have been Haitian women who were raped at some of the outdoor migrant camps in Matamoros and Reynosa, Rangel-Samponaro said.

Estuardo Cifuentes, a Guatemalan asylum-seeker with a pending case in New York, lived in Matamoros for 19 months, from 2019 to 2021, and saw many Black women who had been abused and raped. “They are targets of violence just because of the color of their skin,” said Cifuentes, who worked near the large migrant camp at an aid center in Matamoros. Cifuentes now works for Lawyers for Good Government, a legal nonprofit whose services include assistance to asylum-seekers in the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We strongly advise the migrant populations in the Matamoros area, including many Black asylum-seekers, to be extremely cautious,” said Guerline Jozef, executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, a San Diego-based nonprofit that provides migrants with humanitarian, legal and social services.

Last Friday, when Jozef first saw the video of the kidnapping on social media, she, too, thought the Blacks attacked were Haitian. The street shooting and kidnapping happened very close to a migrant camp populated by many Haitians, she said.

“These cruel acts of violence show that whether you are seeking asylum or U.S. citizens of African descent just visiting the Matamoros area, there is no safe place for Black people on the U.S.-Mexico border,” she said.

The Matamoros incident was Mexico’s George Floyd moment, Jozef said.

“Whether it is George Floyd in the U.S. or those people in Matamoros or migrants at the border, there is no safe place for Black people,” Jozef said. “The only time that state and government actors investigate is when there is evidence, when we have videos and photos that go viral that forces governments to do the right thing.”

Some people in Matamoros mistakenly believed that the kidnapped Americans were Haitian immigrants, said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an associate professor at George Mason University who has written extensively on criminal groups in northern Mexico.

Extortion rackets have increased in recent months in Matamoros, Correa-Cabrera said. “Just killing them like that,” she said, pausing, “is difficult to understand. Even the people who know a lot (about) Matamoros are confused.”

Abraham Barberi, a Mexican-born pastor who works with asylum-seekers, said he was three blocks away in a cab when the kidnapping took place. Barberi confirmed that some Matamoros residents first thought those kidnapped were Haitian migrants, one of the many nationalities of migrants who have gathered in the border city of about 520,000.

Barberi said he didn’t believe the Americans were targeted because of their race. “I hate for people to think that Mexicans don’t like Black people. There are thousands of Haitians here right now,” he said. “The cartel will not kidnap someone just because they are Black.”

Barberi ran a shelter for migrants in Matamoros until November, when he closed it because of lack of funding. At one point, there were more Haitians at the shelter than any other group, he said.

The migrant camps in Matamoros are largely divided into Black and Latino populations, said Rangel-Samponaro. Within a day of the kidnapping, Haitian immigrants were clearing out of their camp, which lies at the southern end of the larger camp near the international bridge that crosses into Brownsville.

Many Haitian migrants headed for Reynosa, an hour west of Matamoros, where the Sidewalk School operates a shelter, she said.

Many Black asylum-seekers often don’t speak Spanish, and can’t blend into crowds, she said. That makes them targets, she said.

The kidnapping of the Americans “definitely scared the Black asylum-seekers,” she said. “They are just leaving Matamoros.”

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