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In Mexico, cartels recruit vulnerable migrants

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An assault rifle, semiautomatic pistols, ammo and other stuff seized in the arrest of ten alleged members of the drug cartel "Los Zetas", are presented to the press in Monterrey, Mexico, on February 9, 2012. Honduran migrant Samuel Alberto Centeno Vazquez was approached to work for the Zetas drug cartel as he made his way along the railways that lead to Mexico's border with the United States.AFP/File

Honduran migrant Samuel Alberto Centeno Vazquez was approached to work for the Zetas drug cartel as he made his way along the railways that lead to Mexico's border with the United States.

The members of the criminal gang carried pistols and made promises of a $1,000 monthly salary, girls and drugs.

"They wanted us to work with them, if you know what I mean," said Centeno Vazquez, 19, who spoke to AFP outside a migrant shelter in Huehuetoca in the state of Mexico, which borders Mexico City.

He was offered the money to help the Zetas in their criminal activities, which include murder, drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion.

Mexico's drug cartels are increasingly recruiting undocumented Central American migrants to join their ranks, non-governmental groups say.

Although the number of Mexicans making the journey north to the United States is at a low, Central Americans are streaming across Mexico from troubled countries like Honduras in search of a better life.

An estimated 200,000 crossed into Mexico illegally last year, the interior ministry says. Mostly poor and in desperate need of work, many of them find such job offers hard to resist.

"We said no but others have gone with them," said Centeno Vazquez.

For years, Central American migrants have been the victims of kidnapping, murder and extortion at the hands of Mexico's corrupt authorities and criminal groups.

The Zetas are one of Mexico's most violent criminal gangs and control significant swathes of territory, though their future is at a crossroads after their leader, Miguel Angel Trevino, was arrested on Monday.

Other migrants in the shelter in Mexico state wished to remain anonymous but spoke to AFP about similar experiences.

The shelter, little more than an improvised camp, was pushed far out of the small town of Huehuetoca and sits along the railway lines that carry the cargo trains that the migrants jump onto, risking life and limb.

One man from Honduras said: "Sometimes people get recruited because they don't have money. Sometimes the Zetas infiltrate these shelters. And others don't have any other choice - they're not going to die of hunger."

Non-profits who work with migrants say that many who are trying to escape poverty back home struggle to pay the tax that drug gangs now charge them to sit atop the cargo trains that carry them to the border.

Migrants say that gangs are currently charging migrants around $100 each to ride the trains. Smugglers can charge thousands of dollars to take Central Americans all the way to the US border.

"People don't have the money to pay for the journey, so recruitment is becoming another way of paying these groups. In a lot of cases, either you get recruited or they kill you or a member of your family," said Nancy Perez, director of the non-profit Sin Fronteras.

In August 2010, 72 undocumented migrants were killed in the state of Tamaulipas, and the Zetas are accused of slaughtering them.

The sole survivor of the massacre, a migrant from Ecuador, said the group was kidnapped and then gunned down by its captors after the migrants were unable to pay the money the gang demanded, and refused to work for them.

There have been reports in the Mexican media of Central Americans being arrested as part of drug or human trafficking rings. But the federal prosecutor's office could not provide figures on how many Central Americans are currently in Mexican prisons on drug or human trafficking charges.

The recruitment of migrants into organized crime in Mexico is just one of the latest trends in the country's ongoing drug war.

More than 70,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence since 2006, when then president Felipe Calderon deployed troops against the country's drug cartels.

President Enrique Pena Nieto has vowed to curb violence and form a new police force to tackle it, but the killing spree has continued since he took office in December.