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The Backstory

Stillman wins May Sidney for investigating the lucrative kidnapping of migrant children on the border
May, 2015

Sarah Stillman wins May Sidney for “Kidnapped at the Border,” a feature for The New Yorker.

Brayan and Robinson Godoy were kidnapped in Texas, shortly after crossing the Mexican border. The boys were on their way to New Jersey to live with their parents. They were fleeing their native Guatemala, where they had witnessed a quadruple murder of children playing soccer, among other killings.

Stillman explains why the plight of the Godoy family is becoming increasingly common.

Since the early nineties, a U.S. policy known as “deterrence through prevention” has blocked off the most direct border crossing routes and forced migrants into ever more remote and dangerous territory. Migrant deaths have surged, and so have kidnappings.

Hundreds of cases of migration-related kidnapping have been prosecuted in U.S. federal courts in recent years, but most victims are reluctant to report the offense. Those who come forward often face deportation.

Kidnapping has become a lucrative business for drug cartels and other criminals. The recent surge of unaccompanied children coming from Central America has been a windfall for kidnappers. They are easy prey.

An estimated 18,000 migrants are seized in Mexico each year. Hundreds of kidnappings of migrants will yield more income than one case of a rich person, which is likely to become high-profile. On the conservative assumption that a third of the victims’ families pay a $4,000 ransom, one NGO estimates that these kidnappings represent $24 million in ransom money. Local police often take cuts, and mostly the U.S authorities are never contacted.

“Stillman’s reporting shows how U.S. immigration policy is benefiting organized crime and endangering children,” said Sidney judge Lindsay Beyerstein.

Sarah Stillman is a staff writer at The New Yorker. She has written on topics ranging from abuses of civil asset forfeiture to the return of debtors prisons, and from Mexico’s drug cartels to Bangladesh’s garment-factory workers. Her reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan on labor abuses and human trafficking on United States military bases won a National Magazine Award and a Hillman Prize.

Lindsay Beyerstein interviewed Sarah Stillman by email

Q: How did you learn about the Godoy/Lemus family and their ordeal at the hands of kidnappers?

A: Finding a family that wanted to go on the record with their extortion story turned out to be a difficult proposition, for all of the obvious reasons. I started out feeling foolishly optimistic; I thought I'd simply begin with court records, and assumed -- wrongly -- that since there are hundreds if not thousands of federal cases in which kidnappers and extortionists have been prosecuted, I'd simply find a case that went to trial, dig up the records, and start talking to families who'd been targeted from there.

But what I slowly figured out, after pulling up indictment after indictment, is that migrant kidnapping cases rarely go to trial. The victims fall into virtually every category of vulnerability imaginable: almost all are undocumented; few have access to legal representation; those rescued from stash houses are often detained in hard-to-navigate private detention facilities, then deported; and most live in tremendous fear of both their former captors and law enforcement.

Already, by that point, I'd started turning to community organizations and legal aid groups that work with newly-arrived immigrants, particularly unaccompanied children -- amazing pro bono providers and NGOs like the Young Center for Immigrant Rights, in Chicago; RAICES, in Texas; and Kids in Need of Defense, in Washington, DC. Groups like these proved to be a tremendous resource in my reporting, introducing me to families and starting off the process of earning trust.

Eventually, I decided to focus on the Godoy-Lemus family for a number of reasons: first, both parents were deeply invested in wanting to share their family's ordeal, despite the trauma and fear they'd gone through; they believed it would help other families in their shoes, and perhaps their own sons, too. The news of the children's rescue and the family's photograph had already run in The Trentonian, so I didn't have to grapple as much with a concern about making their names public for the first time. Secondly, their family's situation was truly a microcosm of our country's broken immigration system: two hard-working undocumented parents who'd lived in Trenton for many years and contributed to the city's economy, while living in its shadows; a young daughter who is a U.S. citizen and lives with the stresses of a mixed-status family; an older daughter who came here as a child and may now qualify as a "Dreamer" under Obama's new reforms; and two teenage sons who fled the remarkable violence of Guatemala City, only to face a kidnapping on U.S. soil followed by an ordeal in the custody of U.S. Border Patrol.

Lastly, I chose the Godoys because they were a very patient, generous family who were willing to let me into their lives for many months -- to play bingo with their sons and learn Instagram from their daughters and go to church, school, and court with them.  

Q: As part your reporting, you joined a group of Central American women on a bus trip to look for loved ones who had gone missing en route to the United States. Can you tell us more about that trip?

A: That trip through Mexico with the families of disappeared migrants brought home just how much violence and trauma is unfolding at our country's doorstep, for reasons deeply tied to failed U.S. drug-war policies and to broader regional conflicts that don't get a fraction of the coverage here they deserve. The bus trip involved about forty women from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, most of whom had come to Mexico to search for a disappeared husband, son, or daughter; most of the women's loved ones had disappeared while trying to migrate to the U.S., walking and riding trains along some of the world's most lethal migration routes.

Our journey was organized by a remarkable group called the Meso-American Migrant Movement (MMM), which works on behalf of migrants rights in Mexico -- where, in some parts of the country, that work can be life-threatening. The team from MMM rented two buses and designed a route by which the women could best search for their loved ones across some 3,000 miles of Mexico, starting at the southern border with Guatemala and trekking all the way to the northern border with Texas. Basically, we would stop at morgues, hospitals, prisons, drug rehab centers, and any other place where migrants might have gotten diverted -- or, worse, injured or killed -- on their journey north. The women would also stand in the town square in each new town we entered, holding their loved one's photograph on a poster or wearing a large picture around their neck on a piece of bright string, in hopes that someone might recognize the image and offer a clue about their child or husband's whereabouts. Mothers would stop random strangers and say, for instance, "This is my daughter, Clementina Barrera, from Nicaragua -- have you seen her?" At night, we slept mostly in migrant shelters run by sympathetic clergy within the Catholic church.

Amazingly enough, there were a few reunions between mothers and their missing children on the trip. The MMM had one migrants' rights activist, in particular, who would gather up any clues a mother received, and do everything he possibly could to follow up, sometimes following a migrants' digital footprint on Facebook or other social networks. His name is Ruben Figueroa, and there's a great story you can read about his efforts here. He's faced death threats for his work, and all kinds of persecution, but he works fearlessly to get these mothers reunited with their kids and spouses, and to change the underlying conditions that make migration so dangerous to begin with.  

Over the course of the three week trip, many of the mothers became politicized, too, talking with officials about the reasons for their kids' disappearances, the poverty and violence that caused them to flee home for the U.S. in the first place, and the frustrations of being dismissed by the Mexican government as they sought help finding missing family members. It was interesting to watch the women learn more about the ways in which the Mexican police and other authorities were sometimes complicit in migrant kidnappings -- and to watch them start to speak out about this, too, and connect at public events with Mexican mothers who were grieving their kids lost to the country's drug war.

Q: What would happen if we let kidnapped migrants earn asylum by testifying against their kidnappers?

A: Right now, there's actually a way for many undocumented victims of extortion to earn legal relief by testifying against their kidnappers. Many are eligible for something called a "U visa," for victims of crime, or a "T visa," for victims of trafficking. One issue is that many immigrants never learn that they're eligible for these programs, particularly because detained migrants -- including unaccompanied children -- have no right to free legal representation. A second issue is that the number of U visas that can be given out every year is capped, and there is a long waiting list, which keeps many kids and families from having a chance. Even so, the program is an incredibly important one; it means that undocumented families can come forward to report crimes that they might otherwise be too afraid to voice.

Q: You found that many kidnappers are aided by the same Mexican authorities who are getting U.S. money to fight the drug war. How does that work?

A: One theme that came up again and again, while traveling across Mexico, was the ways in which U.S. funding for both the drug war and border militarization have actually played into the hands of drug cartels and organized crime, at the expense of migrants. For starters, the U.S. has funneled money and weaponry to Mexican forces to support a violent war on drug trafficking that hasn't managed to reduce drug flows; instead, the conflict has consolidated the power of major organized crime groups like the Zetas, while doing little to touch U.S. demand for pot, meth, and cocaine. In the process, the Zetas have also diversified their business model, bringing in extra cash by taking over human smuggling routes and by kidnapping migrants to extort for ransom.

Corruption in the ranks of the Mexican government has meant that some authorities have not only turned a blind eye to this sort of activity -- in some cases, they've participated in and profited from migrant kidnappings. For instance, back in 2010, the Zetas were apparently involved in kidnapping a group of Central and South American migrants who were on their way to low-wage jobs in the U.S. Cartel operatives bound, shot, and killed seventy-two of the migrants on a ranch in San Fernando, near the U.S. border. Only very recently did it come to light that, when interrogated by authorities, local Mexican police admitted that officials had helped deliver migrants into the hands of their kidnappers, for a fee.

One other way current U.S. policy has empowered drug cartels: paradoxically, the militarization of the U.S. border through fences, drones, and more has meant that human smugglers can charge higher rates than ever before; cartels, wanting in on the profits, have essentially taken over the business. Several experts told me that the situation for both human smuggling and drug smuggling resembles Prohibition: by cracking down on supply without addressing demand, authorities haven't eliminated commerce so much as pushed it into more dangerous, organized corners. If people seeking work, safety, or family in the U.S. had more legal avenues to come here, less money would go into the hands of the massive smuggling industry that is now helmed by cartels.

Q: When your story went to print, Brayan and Robinson Godoy were facing the threat of deportation. Have there been any developments in their case since then?

A: They're still in limbo. Unlike many kids who go before the so-called "rocket docket" -- the Obama Administration's way of speeding up the deportation cases of unaccompanied migrant children, many of whom fled Central American violence -- the Godoy brothers were lucky enough to have a lawyer. They are currently in the process of applying for U visas. It can be a long road.

As they wait, a larger legal battle is unfolding over the fate of migrant children at the border; in particular, many of the kids who came with their mothers are still detained in private detention facilities, and advocates are pushing for an end to this policy. The stories of these children and families are far from over, even if much of the media attention has moved on.

Q: Did you encounter any language barriers in reporting this story, and if so, how did you surmount them?

A: I was lucky to have basic -- if embarrassing -- Spanish, so, in some cases, I spent time with the Godoy family one-on-one and had the benefit of the Godoy girls' English skills to back me up! But most of the time, I preferred to have an interpreter along nonetheless, to help capture the many, many things I missed; that was true on the bus trip through Mexico, too, where accents and slang were compounded by the fact that some of the women on the trip spoke Kaqchikel as their first language. It was a real gift to work with very skillful, empathetic interpreters who tended to enrich the situation rather than take away from it.

Previous Backstories

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R.G. Dunlop and Jacob Ryan of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting win the February Sidney Award for exposing an outrageous system of patronage with their story “Only in Kentucky: Jailers Without Jails.” Due to a quirk in Kentucky’s constitution, 41 counties have a county jailer, but no jail.
January, 2015
Richard Marosi and Don Bartletti wins the January Sidney Award for “Product of Mexico,” a multi-media package for the Los Angeles Times documenting the brutal labor practices on Mexican farms that supply tomatoes and other produce to major U.S. retailers including WalMart.
December, 2014
Greg Palast wins the December Sidney for “Jim Crow Returns,” and “Challenging Crosscheck,” a two-part Al Jazeera America exposé that shows how millions of innocent people were flagged as suspected vote fraudsters just because they have the same first and last name as a voter in another state. On the eve of the 2014 elections, officials had begun to purge voters based on Crosscheck, with over 40,000 voters being dropped from the rolls in Virginia alone.
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September, 2014
The Post and Courier wins the September Sidney Award for “Till Death Do Us Part,” an investigative multimedia series probing South Carolina’s domestic homicide crisis.
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Jay Root wins the August Sidney Award for “Hurting for Work,” a Texas Tribune series, which illustrates how laissez-faire policies created the “Texas Miracle” on the backs of workers.
July, 2014
Esther Kaplan wins the July Sidney Award for “Losing Sparta: The Bitter Truth About the Gospel Of Productivity” a feature in The Virginia Quarterly Review which describes how a Philips lighting plant in Sparta, Tennessee got off-shored to Mexico, despite being the most productive plant in the country.
June, 2014
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Chris Hayes wins the May Sidney Award for “The New Abolitionism,” a provocative feature in The Nation in which he argues that fossil fuel companies must forfeit $10 trillion in wealth in order to save human civilization, a demand he says is no less urgent, and no less radical than the abolitionist ultimatum that slaveholders give up the vast wealth they held in human bondage.