Anniversary of Migrant Massacre in Mexico Brings Few Answers

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One year after the massacre of 72 migrants in Tamaulipas, north Mexico, none of the killers have been brought to justice. Tying up the loose ends in the story means understanding how and why the migrants became targets.

On August 23, 2010, a wounded man approached a security checkpoint close to the town of San Fernando, in the state of Tamaulipas, 160 kilometers from the U.S. border. He had been shot through the jaw, and told troops he was the survivor of a mass killing on a nearby ranch. Navy troops approached the property, exchanging fire with criminals, and found 72 bodies lying in a heap in an outside storehouse.

One year later, the facts of what happened at the ranch that day are not much clearer. The dead were migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Ecuador, and Brazil, making their way to the U.S. border. They were killed execution-style, with one or two shots to each victim. Details emerged of at least one other survivor, while the wounded man who first raised the alarm, an Ecuadorean, told the authorities that there had been a total of 76 people traveling together, all of whom were killed.

Initial reports said that the Zetas drug gang had kidnapped the group from the highway, slaughtering them when they refused to join the organization. But, as InSight Crime has pointed out, this seems unlikely. There is little reason to think the Zetas are desperate enough to resort to this kind of forced recruitment. Likewise, the idea that the migrants were killed after being mistaken for reinforcements for another drug gang does not hold water, as they were all, or mostly, foreigners and would have been clearly identifiable as migrants. While questions mounted over the killings, the body count continued to rise in Tamaulipas — some 183 bodies were found in a series of mass graves outside San Fernando in April of this year. One NGO warned on the anniversary of the find that there are at least 500 more bodies hidden in mass graves in Tamaulipas, based on confessions from criminals.

Many of these are likely migrants. The National Human Rights Commission said in 2010 that almost 10,000 migrants are kidnapped every year in Mexico. These attacks happen for different reasons. Often the migrants are the targets of kidnapping by gangs who force them to call their families and ask them to send money. Sometimes they are the unwitting victims of disputes over taxes, known as “piso,” which criminal gangs charge migrant smugglers, in exchange for the right to bring the human cargo through the gang’s territory. One theory with the Tamaulipas massacre is that the migrants were killed because their handlers failed to pay the correct “piso” sum to the Zetas. Even more disturbingly, some migrants have even claimed that Mexican immigration officials themselves handed them over to kidnapping gangs.

The story is not over for the relatives of the victims. Guatemala has called on the Mexican government carry out a thorough investigation into the case, and protested that it had buried 13 bodies that still remained to be identified. Relatives of Honduran victims have said that they were not allowed to see the bodies, so do not know if they were correctly identified.

Mexican authorities say they have charged 81 people with taking part in the various San Fernando killings, including Edgar Huerta Montiel, alias “El Wache,” who has reportedly confessed to masterminding the 2010 massacre. No one has yet been sentenced.

Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (Comision Nacional de los Derechos Humanos – CNDH) told El Universal that it continues to investigate the Tamaulipas massacre, and accused the Attorney General’s Office (PGR) of refusing to cooperate. And as the investigation drags on, abuses against migrants continue. Fresh proof was offered on August 8 when 19-year-old Guatemalan citizen, part of a peace march to protest violence against migrants, was lynched in southern Mexico. He was reportedly misidentified as a thief, and handed him to a mob by police in exchange for money.

On the anniversary of the killings, local authorities in Tamaulipas announced that the army would stay at least two more years in the state to ensure security and support the police. But they have not yet managed to protect the highly vulnerable groups passing through the state. As Batista Jimenez, representative of the human rights commission, pointed out, the Tamaulipas killings represent only a sample of the attacks against migrants passing through Mexico.

The Ecuadorean survivor appealed to his countrymen not to take the migrant route to the U.S. “Don’t come, there are many bad people who will not let you pass … I tell all Ecuadoreans not to travel, because the Zetas are killing many people.”

(See Milenio’s video report, below, on the process of identifying the corpses found in the San Fernando mass graves.)

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