PHOENIX — Vandals broke into a shelter, left feces on crosses made by migrant men and trashed other parts of the building. Someone made a threatening call to a priest who helps serve warm meals to recently deported immigrants.
The soup kitchen for deported migrants in the Mexican city of Nogales, on the border with Arizona, has seen a spate of crimes this year. Its leader says the incidents likely are tied to the center's growing involvement in helping migrants report crimes.
"We've been robbed before, but we've never had a break-in like that," said the Rev. Sean Carroll, head of the center known in Spanish as a "comedor." His efforts won Pope Francis' praise last year.
The break-in and vandalism at the Kino Border Initiative-run center are part of a border-wide problem of drug cartels that see migrant shelters as an impediment to their business because they protect migrants who otherwise could be forced into smuggling drugs or extorted for money to cross into the U.S.
Carroll says migrants have increasingly told staff and volunteers they were robbed or kidnapped by criminal organizations hoping to seize on attempts to cross the border.
"I think it comes in waves," said Maureen Meyer, a senior associate with the Washington Office on Latin America. "They're protecting something that criminal organizations use as a profit."
In Nogales, staffers have escorted migrants to police departments and helped them file reports on at least 10 occasions this year, Carroll says. The kitchen served over 4,300 meals in October and provides shelter for a limited number of migrants.
Carroll says staff already has safety measures in place, but is also working with Mexican police to increase patrols and possibly install security cameras in the kitchen. Mexican police told The Arizona Republic that the vandalism was not related to drug cartels.
The Rev. Giovanni Bizzotto, director of a shelter in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, which sits on the border with Texas, says many migrants experience harrowing journeys that include extortion, kidnappings and robberies.
Violence between drug cartels and against migrants in that part of Mexico has surged in the past several years, including the discovery of a mass grave that held over 70 migrants in the city of San Fernando, about 250 miles south of Nuevo Laredo. The U.S. State Department advises against unnecessary travel to many cities in the state of Tamaulipas.
"We're right here in the middle of the situation," Bizzotto said. "The situation is very hard on the border, but we carry on with hope."
The Rev. Pat Murphy, who operates a migrant shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, says he hasn't seen any issues with crime lately, but that could be because the shelter is open 24 hours a day and always has staff on hand. The shelter provides food, clothing, legal assistance and other services to deported immigrants or those who have just arrived in northern Mexico.
In Nogales, Carroll said staff discovered the vandalized shelter Sept. 15. Besides feces, they found paint thrown around a table and soap tossed around.
"It's a threatening environment for our staff at the moment," Carroll said. "We're moving forward, and obviously we continue to seek support for our mission, but the mission hasn't changed."