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The desert near Van Horn, Texas, where José Luis Palate last spoke to his sister amid extreme temperatures, telling her he was lost. Photo: Damià Bonmatí
The desert near Van Horn, Texas, where José Luis Palate last spoke to his sister amid extreme temperatures, telling her he was lost. Photo: Damià Bonmatí

Scams on the rise against families of missing migrants

Families have received messages from supposed kidnappers of loved ones demanding payment for their safe return. They don’t return either way.

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Scammers are once again taking advantage of a very vulnerable population: this time it’s Latinos desperate to reunite with their loved ones who went missing on their migration journey.

There are small warnings on Facebook mixed in among thousands of comments and pictures in online groups searching for missing migrants at the border.

“Sir, remove your phone number from here. They will ask for money in exchange for information,” one Facebook user advised another.

“It is dangerous to put the number. In the networks there are scammers who do not feel the pain of the one who suffers,” another person said. 

Criminal groups have targeted families looking for loved ones who disappeared at the border while migrating to the U.S. 

After snatching data and photos on their social networks, scammers then stalk families on WhatsApp and by phone. They report alleged kidnappings of missing relatives, re-create false proof of life and ask for thousands of dollars for ransoms that will never take place. 

Telemundo’s Investiga spoke with several victims who described scams that are powered by the hope of finding lost migrant relatives. Migrant kidnappings occur daily in the Mexican part of the border, and disappearances have grown to an unprecedented level.

Rocío Palate, a 47-year-old immigrant from Ecuador, said her heart skipped a beat when she received the first WhatsApp message. 

“We have your relative,” they wrote. Palate was doubtful and suspicious, but was pulled by the strong desire to see her brother José Luis Palate alive. 

They had not heard from José Luis Palate, a 41-year-old bricklayer, for two months. 

At the end of May 2021, he said goodbye to his children in Ecuador carrying a black briefcase. After jumping over a wall near El Paso, Texas, José texted his sister a photo showing the tips of his shoes and before him, all that was visible was desert. He said he was lost. 

After this communication it became increasingly difficult, and the last words José said to his sister were “Help me  — tell them to come pick me up. I have fallen asleep. Help me.” 

Rocío called 911, local authorities, consulates and border rescue groups in the following days. The Ecuadorian Embassy told her nothing could be done; they needed 72 hours to pass before reporting the disappearance. 

Two months later, the family posted in a Facebook group asking for any news regarding him. There are several pages on the platform filled with desperate messages mixed with some happy announcements of “found alive” that provide hope to other families. 

Rocío Palate was contacted after the family posted on Facebook about her missing brother.

The phone numbers were from Mexico, and it was a combination of written messages, voice messages and calls. Yet all the messages from the chat disappeared the second after Rocío saw them. 

“If you want to have your family member by your side, deposit $5,000 right now and I will give you your brother at a certain location near San Antonio,” the message read. 

When asked for proof of life, she was sent photos of her brother. One of them showed him holding a sign with the date of that day written on it. Another one showed him appearing sad. There was also a video in which a man was seen lying down, with half of his face covered. Again, everything appeared and disappeared instantly. 

The family was able to take screenshots, and realized the photos seemed fake, and that the man in the video could be any man with a sharp nose. Rocío asked to see her brother, but was never able to. 

But when the alleged kidnappers called Rocío and mentioned intimate details about her brother and the names of her family members, she started to truly believe that José was being held captive.

The supposed kidnappers gave her an ultimatum. If she didn’t pay, they were going to kill her brother. That night, Rocío quickly followed the instructions, paying the money in five discrete payments of $1,000. She then had to tear all the pay stubs into pieces and send video evidence of the destruction. 

No one confirmed the payment, and there were no more phone conversations. They never heard from José Luis Palate, and Rocío realized what had happened. 

These same scamming methods are repeated. After a post on social media, scammers make contact in private, send questionable photos of the missing migrant as proof of life and ask for thousands of dollars for ransom. 

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told Investiga that it has no record of these scams, but some counties on the Texas border are aware of this shady practice. 

Sheriff Oscar Carrillo said he was overwhelmed by the dramatic increase of missing and deceased migrants in his jurisdiction — an area with extreme temperatures, considered one of the riskiest areas for border crossings. 

During a patrol with Investiga, Carrillo received a call from a family who had reported the disappearance of a loved one. A worried Mexican woman told the sheriff about an attempted scam. 

“It is possible. It is what the cartels do: They extort money. They take money from the families,” Carrillo said. 

"I think about my brother all the time. I think that when he asked me for help, I couldn’t do anything. I think I’m to blame because I couldn’t do anything at that time, because I didn’t know how to do it,” Rocío Palate said.

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