The documents -- obtained by the National Security Archive via dozens of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests as part of a project on migrants -- paint a picture of war and mayhem in the Tamaulipas state where most of the massacres occurred. At the time, there were regular confrontations between the two warring criminal groups, the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, and between these criminal organizations and the military.
"The security situation in northern Mexico continues to be tenuous as warring Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTO) continue to fight for lucrative smuggling corridors and Mexican military and law enforcement entities struggle to maintain order," a March 2010 document from the US Department of Homeland Security (pdf) reads.
Local officials were also compromised -- specifically the police.
"In many cases [the criminal groups] operated with near total impunity in the face of compromised local security forces," an April 2010 Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS) cable declares (pdf).
The Zetas were the Gulf Cartel enforcers from the late 1990s until the two groups violently split in January 2010. Both had a strong presence in Tamaulipas, making for a fratricidal war in which suspicions quickly became paranoia.
Migrants, the majority of whom were Mexican and Central American, traveled straight into this gauntlet. While there were signs that this trip through the northeast of the country was getting considerably more dangerous, there was little to signal the scale of what would happen on August 22, 2010.
On that day, according to a Matamoros-based US Consulate cable (pdf),"75 migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, Brazil and Ecuador (including one described only as 'Hindu') travelling in three panel trucks on the highway between the Tamaulipas towns of Ciudad Victoria and San Fernando, were stopped by an unknown number of organized crime figures and transported under guard to San Fernando."
San Fernando is a municipality in Tamaulipas about 150 kilometers south of the US - Texas border. It was a stronghold of the Zetas at the time, as it gave them a way to try to control the flow of illicit products and personnel to the Gulf Cartel, which had its stronghold further north along the border.
"The members of the group were offered the opportunity to work for the alleged drug trafficking organization Las (sic) Zetas for $500 a week," the cable continues. "The men were offered the opportunity to become 'sicarios' or gunmen while the women were offered the opportunity to work as domestic help.”
It is here where the story becomes strange and, to a certain extent, unbelievable. The migrants -- according to the lone survivor who recounted the events to the Mexican authorities, who then recounted them to the US consulate -- refused to work with the Zetas.
This is the version that remains the official story to this day, but this seems illogical considering the circumstances: surrounded by several armed young men, some of them possibly under the influence of drugs (which is common for Zetas soldiers), the illegal immigrants decided that they would continue on their journey north.
The consulate does not question this story. Instead, the writer inserts a comment: "The salary offered seems exceedingly generous and was likely not the actual salary, if any, they would have received if they had agreed to join the organization. End comment."
In other words, the analyst thinks the Zetas were simply toying with the migrants before taking the final solution: mass execution. The 72 victims would later be found with single or multiple bullet wounds to their heads. The US official cautioned that this was "a new level of violence from the Zetas," but offered only one possible motive.
"One theory proposed by [name redacted] is that as the profits from the migrants' proposed illegal entry in to the US were destined for the Gulf Cartel, their murders were a way for the Zetas to financially hurt the Gulf Cartel’s interests," the cable says.
However, the modus operandi did not fit with anything that happened before or after this incident. The size of the massacre was unprecedented, even for a country that was becoming immune to large-scale atrocities. Among the victims were 14 women, one of them possibly pregnant; none of them showed any signs of sexual assault, a typical feature of captivity with the Zetas.
There was no ransom demanded of any of the victims' families even though the Zetas were regularly kidnapping migrants throughout the region. None of the victims were Mexican, while the majority of later victims were. The victims were herded in trucks; later victims were snatched from commercial bus lines. The coup de grace was also atypical. Many subsequent victims would be beaten to death.
Perhaps most disturbing is the timeline. The witness, a 19-year old Ecuadorean, said he "lost consciousness" during the melee and awoke later to find the bodies around him. He then wandered through the darkness until he reached a Navy outpost in the early morning of August 23, the cable says, which led authorities to the site of the massacre. (See Gary Moore’s more complete account of the witness' amazing escape here.)
However, Mexican authorities did not get to the massacre site until "1800 hours" August 24, the cable says, approximately 36 hours after the Ecuadorean arrived on their doorstep. There is no mention of why it took them so long to gather their forces and search for the site where presumably the largest single massacre on Mexican soil since Pancho Villa's time had occurred just a few kilometers from their post.
The victims' luggage and IDs were never recovered. Perhaps the Zetas believed the search for the victims' identities would consume the authorities, which indeed it did. However, as one foreign consulate investigator told InSight Crime after the massacre, military personnel also remove luggage from detention areas. (To be fair, many of the Zetas are also former military personnel.)
Following the massacre, Mexican authorities announced a "Migrant Protection Plan," which highlighted targeting smuggling groups, coordinating federal agencies and streamlining kidnapping cases in the judicial system. Dozens of suspects were arrested, including 17 police in San Fernando and several alleged "intellectual authors" of the massacre.
But the killings of migrants continued. Between August 2010 and April 2011, hundreds more migrants were kidnapped and murdered, most of whom were taken from commercial bus lines. In all, 196 bodies were recovered in April 2011, most of them Mexicans. A suspect later told authorities, convincingly, that the Zetas had killed the migrants because they feared they were reinforcements for the Gulf Cartel.
In May 2012, authorities discovered another 49 victims on the side of a road, many of them presumed migrants, in neighboring Nuevo Leon state. It was a gruesome bookend to a dark period, especially for a country that so publicly clamors for migrants’ rights.
Throughout, Mexican authorities seemed more interested in damage control than in stopping the atrocities. As the National Security Archive reveals in its project "Migration Declassified," state authorities sought to downplay events. As the corpses from mass graves piled up in the morgue in April 2011, Mexican officials told US officials that: "the bodies are being split up to make the total number less obvious and thus less alarming."(pdf)
Tourism even took priority over mass murder: an April 2011 US consulate cable (pdf) says Mexican "government officials have avoided publicly drawing attention to the level of violence in Tamaulipas" in order to avoid impacting holiday travel during Holy Week.
But while the US government documents give us a window into the events surrounding the murders of migrants during that time period, numerous questions remain that only the Mexican government can answer -- perhaps the most important of them being why this was able to happen repeatedly during a two-year period.
Unfortunately, in the years since the massacre of the 72 in San Fernando, the Mexican government has steadfastly rejected numerous petitions (the equivalent of FOIAs in Mexico) to obtain more information on the cases, including a formal request by the Article 19 transparency and press freedom organization to open the case files into the August 2010 massacre.
In its response, the Mexican institution charged with filtering these requests said it was not in its purview to reveal documents regarding human rights violations.
"The kidnapping and subsequent murder of 72 migrants is an appalling case, clearly of interest to the public…[and one] that in any modern democracy would lead investigations and a complete accounting [of the incident] on every level," Article 19 wrote in its statement after the decision. "Mexico will continue to be the exception to the rule, while it remains in secrecy."