By Laura Gottesdiener and Diego Oré
MONTERREY, Mexico, Jan 4 (Reuters) - The armed men who kidnapped 32 migrants in northern Mexico over the weekend aimed to extort money from them and their families in the United States, Mexico's president said on Thursday, one day after the migrants were released from captivity.
He said that the migrants, who were found on Wednesday, were abandoned by their kidnappers in a parking lot in a shopping center in the northern city of Reynosa in the state of Tamaulipas.
"Because there was a strong deployment (from Mexican authorities), they decided to free them, safe and sound," President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said in his morning press conference.
Human rights activists have been warning for months about an escalating kidnapping crisis in Reynosa, where last year Reuters documented a pattern of kidnappings - and at times sexual assault - of migrants and asylum seekers.
The 32 migrants were abducted on Saturday from a commercial bus that had departed the northern city of Monterrey for Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas, according to Mexican officials. They were forced off the bus while traveling through Reynosa and whisked away in cars by armed men, officials added.
In a separate case, authorities in the border state of Sonora said on Thursday they had rescued around 20 migrants, many also kidnapped off busses.
The group kidnapped in Reynosa was discovered after an anonymous caller tipped off authorities to their whereabouts, the state security agency's spokesman told Reuters.
The 32 migrants ranged in age from a 71-year-old man to a 1-year-old baby girl, with a total of 11 minors, he said, adding 26 were from Venezuela and six from Honduras.
The state attorney general's office said the migrants had given their testimonies and that the office has opened an investigation. No one has been arrested so far, Cuellar said.
Late on Thursday, Mexico's national migration institute said it would grant the migrants humanitarian visas.
A record number of migrants traveled across Central America and Mexico in 2023 aiming to reach the United States, fleeing poverty, violence, climate change and conflict.
Earlier this week, a 4,000-person caravan traveling through southern Mexico dispersed after leaders said migration authorities had promised to provide travel permits.
But the caravan's leader, Luis Garcia, said in a statement on Thursday that some migrants were "abandoned on the street" by authorities.
Mexico's migration institute did not respond to a request for comment.
The mass kidnapping has sparked increased fear among migrants in Mexico.
Diego Vargas, 25, of Colombia, said that just after Christmas, he and his wife landed a coveted appointment on a U.S. government app called CBP One, allowing them to approach a port of entry and cross into the United States legally.
The appointment is scheduled at the Matamoros crossing in mid-January, he said.
But after learning of the kidnapping, he says he and his wife are faced with an impossible choice: risk their lives traveling on the same highway, or return to their country, where he says they fled death threats by a paramilitary group.
"We're so scared to try to reach the border," he said.
(Reporting by Laura Gottesdiener in Monterrey; Diego Ore and Kylie Madry in Mexico City; additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa and Jose Torres in Chiapas; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Michael Perry)
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