A year after the massacre of 72 migrants in San Fernando, north Mexico, journalist Gary Moore visited the town and unpicked some of the mysteries and incongruities in accounts of what happened that night.
Well, at least one more puzzle piece has now been found, unlocking one more riddle in a chamber of horrors.
The San Fernando “immigrant massacre” of August 2010 has become a blind spot in Mexican history. On the one hand it is a solemn human rights landmark of our age, far larger than any such event before it in Mexico’s chaotic “drug war.” And yet (to borrow a phrase from Churchill) the real workings of this massacre have remained “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
It was no routine brawl. An astonishing 72 people — 14 of them women, and all apparently defenseless non-combatants — were tied hand and foot and blindfolded, and then, on a hot night in lonely farmland, were mowed down en masse. Not since the revolutionary era when Pancho Villa massacred San Pedro de la Cueva in 1915 had Mexico seen a cold-blooded mass execution this big.
Hence the importance of the puzzle piece now coming to light. This piece closes a gap in the following narrative:
On Tuesday, August 24, 2010, the Mexican government announced that its elite troops, Mexican Marines, had discovered a drug-gang’s massacre site — or slaughterhouse.
The 72 lifeless forms lay in a abandoned cinderblock farm shed in the middle of nowhere. The Zetas group, a brutal trafficking cartel known for many such atrocities (though none before were even remotely as big as this one) stood accused as the perpetrators of the massacre. In coming months, proofs accumulated that the Zetas were indeed the killers. This part of the puzzle was not where most of the mystery lay.
The victims, meanwhile, were not drug traffickers but bystanders, converted into grisly tokens. They were not even Mexicans, but were foreign immigrants in Mexico, trying to traverse it secretively to gain illegal entry into the United States. Most came from other Latin American nations, as far south as Ecuador and Brazil. However, one poignant fatality in the farm shed, never named publicly, was from India.
Engaged in journeys of thousands of miles (for which they had paid thousands of dollars to people-smugglers), the travelers were caught in a web that suddenly and inexplicably turned fatal. Did the Zetas seek to force-recruit them as enslaved gunmen, or as coke mules? Were they killed to strike at a rival gang? To send a message to the government?
You can pick your theory. One of the biggest mysteries was why the Mexican government kept most of the evidence a secret. Did this mean government complicity in the act itself? Or perhaps simple incompetence? Or even panic on the government’s part? Terse government spokesmen would give almost no details as they told how the marines had allegedly discovered an abomination. They said a lone survivor of the massacre had miraculously emerged to tell the tale. Later he was shown to be an agonized 18-year-old from very far away: a small indigenous village high in the mountains of Ecuador. Without doubt this individual did exist — and was wounded. He was said to have been shot by the killers along with his 72 companions
(some sketchy accounts said he was shot twice), but, it was said, he played dead until the Zetas had left the killing ground. And then, despite his wounds, this tireless survivor allegedly made an epic run of quite a few miles — which took him, again as if by miracle, to a checkpoint operated by Mexican Marines.
Some grumbling and skepticism greeted the story. The young Ecuadorean was never allowed to talk directly to the press (He was soon sent back to Ecuador and there, also under wraps, he told a story that seemed to differ in some ways from the Mexican government’s tale — before he disappeared for good into a witness protection program). So was the government hiding something? Perhaps something big?
In the atmosphere of horror surrounding the August 2010 events, most reporting about them was done by long distance. The countryside around the tormented town of San Fernando was considered far too dangerous for journalists to enter. The very few who went there found the populace too scared to talk. The government left the story of the miraculous survivor suspiciously skeletal. Supporting details were missing — a key symptom of a false cover story.
The antidote that was sorely needed seemed impossible to get. The narrative needed filling out by independent witnesses, to either confirm or disprove the miracle tale. Such a body of testimony, not accessible until now, forms the missing puzzle piece.
This month, more than a year after the massacre’s emergence, I found that San Fernando’s wall of silence had begun to crack. Another spree of massacres this past spring had brought a large government response. More than a thousand troops chased the Zetas into hiding, breaking their rule over San Fernando. Over the summer local residents came to breathe a little easier, and there was a chance to investigate the physical spot where, a year earlier, the wounded Ecuadorean survivor was said to have miraculously made his way to the marines.
What the press had missed with regard to such realities is that the Mexican countryside is seldom an empty moonscape where no witnesses live. Even in the bleakest deserts — and this coastal farmland was no desert — an amazing number of people make their livings, talk to neighbors and form a dense information network. A year later some of these people still wouldn’t talk, but many would, enough to provide a consensus on the massacre story from a perspective unconnected to the government.
The massacre had occurred, first of all, in a farming area called El Huizache, not “El Huizachal” as long-distance press reports mistakenly had it. Geographical indexes agree with the residents on the correct name. The abandoned farm shed that had housed the massacre was on a washboard gravel road called La Noventa (Farm Road 90), which led 10 miles due east from a main highway, Mexican Federal Highway 101. The marine checkpoint in the survivor story was on that highway, at about kilometer marker 114, at a fork where a bypass leaves the main road.
This gives us the minimum distance that the wounded survivor would have had to run — a very impressive ten miles. However, the locals shruggingly concede, there was no doubt that he really did do it. They gave background which, while agreeing with details in the survivor’s story, provide expanded context, reconciling some seeming miracles. Though much of his nighttime run followed the pale ribbon of Farm Road 90, they said, he left the road and veered north when he saw a distant light. They say the light was at a large but locked-down warehouse for grain sorghum, where only a night watchman was on duty — and everybody seemed to know the watchman. Some, still more specifically, said the light was on a utility pole across the road from the warehouse, at a one-room cattle inspection station, Station Ten, which at night was deserted.
So how had the survivor reached the marines? There were no marines at the sorghum warehouse or the cattle inspection post. According to the locals — and the story is known generally in the area — the watchman at the warehouse told the distressed escapee he couldn’t help him — but that south down the highway was a marine checkpoint, better equipped for such dangerous aid. According to this telling the young Ecuadorean didn’t find the marines by miraculous accident, but was directed to them by the watchman: just keep following the highway south.
The context helps, at least, to dispel some of the more spectacular suspicions about the massacre. The accounts by the locals don’t have the ring of empty rumor or emotional exaggeration. The residents had contact with the marines who in August 2010 were bivouacked at the checkpoint, and discussion of the strange escape was apparently general, not a secret (except, perhaps, from hurried or frightened journalists who never went out to the site.)
The crucial indicator — a large context illumined by many clues — now suggests that many points in the Mexican government’s cryptic narration were not lies or cover stories, but reflected real events — though this still leaves the deeper mystery: Why didn’t the government do itself a favor and provide more details in the first place, to create a credible information environment? Quite possibly, complicity in the massacre by some government functionaries was being hidden in some way. By April of this year, when Mexican federal troops finally cleaned out San Fernando’s Zeta hideouts, 17 municipal police were arrested as Zeta allies, and the rest were fired. In various other ways, hapless shipments of illegal immigrants who were crossing Mexican soil might have become entwined in official tendrils.
At any rate, if you believe the general consensus among the locals (and the area is still far too dangerous for formal exercises like naming these witnesses) there really was a miraculous run for freedom. And it was even farther than the 10 miles. The story has the wounded Ecuadorean stumbling east for maybe seven miles or so on the backroad, but then seeing the bright incandescent pole-lamp (also elevated on a ridge) far to the northwest, and veering that way through scrublands for maybe more than three more miles, to finally reach Highway 101 at the light — and then he still wasn’t done. There remained the need to veer left now, in order to stagger south down Highway 101 — for another 1.7 miles, to reach the marine checkpoint. So more than 12 miles in all? That’s a lot of stumbling — especially with a wound in the jaw and (according to some reports) another in the collarbone.
Conceivably, such an act of will could have drawn on an x-factor even the locals failed to consider. The young survivor, Luis Fredy Lala Pomavilla, was a Quechua-speaking farm boy from so high up in the Andes Mountains that his lungs would have been well conditioned. His run was made across a coastal plain nearly at sea level. The altitude difference meant an unaccustomed richness of oxygen. Criminal chaos often involves twists that may sound implausible but are real. Adrenalin has its own magic.
Notwithstanding, many mysteries in the massacre of August 2010 remain stubbornly unresolved. In the confusion just afterward an announcement arose that there were actually two survivors, the other being an unnamed youth from Honduras, who never surfaced publicly. He is known only through a story told by the government of Honduras when it reportedly debriefed him — and this story conflicts fundamentally with the one attributed to the Ecuadorean survivor. The alleged Honduran survivor’s story would put the massacre on Saturday night, August 21. The Ecuadorean’s story puts it on Sunday night, August 22. They can’t both be true — and they couldn’t possibly be just mistaken about such basic details.
The grim landmark on the horizon of Mexican human rights — the 72-person enormity of August 2010 — remains very much an enigma in many ways, with many players possibly hiding the puzzle pieces.