Tens of thousands of Central American migrants are being kidnapped, abused and extorted by Mexican gangs just yards from the United States in a growing racket that may be worth up to $250 million a year.

Arriving in ragtag border towns like Reynosa, Mexico’s migrant kidnapping capital where police in armored vehicles patrol the streets and daytime shootouts are commonplace, migrants are picked off buses by gangs who federal authorities say are in cahoots with local officials.

They are then held captive in small houses packed with dozens of fellow migrants, where they are ransomed for up to $5,000 a head. Women who cannot pay face rape, while men risk beatings and conscription into gang ranks, police say.

Juan Marcos Guardado, a 27-year-old roofer, said he was betrayed by a fellow Honduran shortly after arriving by bus in Reynosa. The man handed Guardado over to men who said they were members of the feared Gulf Cartel and extorted $1,500 from his relatives. They then passed him onto another kidnapping group.

“I’ve been kidnapped, I’ve been beaten, I’ve been robbed, I’ve been put to work and not been paid, just for being a lousy illegal migrant,” he said, showing the burns and scars that cover his skinny frame and close-cropped scalp.

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