CIUDAD VICTORIA, Mexico – A dozen state police officers were arrested for allegedly killing 19 people, including Guatemalan migrants whose bodies were shot and burned near the U.S. border in late January, Mexican authorities said Tuesday.
Tamaulipas Attorney General Irving Barrios Mojica said all 12 officers are in custody and charged with murder, abuse of office and false testimony.
The murders brought back memories of the gruesome 2010 massacre of 72 migrants near the city of San Fernando in the same gang-ridden state. But those murders were committed by a drug cartel, while many people will likely find it more shocking that the January 22nd killings were allegedly carried out by law enforcement.
“At least 12 state police officers participated in the above-mentioned January 22 file,” said Barrios Mojica.
The attorney general did not say what motive the officers might have had, although corrupt local and state police in Mexico are often paid for by drug cartels.
Cartels in Mexico often accuse migrant smugglers of having crossed their territory and kidnap or kill migrants whose smugglers have not paid or paid a rival gang.
The bodies were found stacked in a charred pickup truck in Camargo, across the Rio Grande from Texas, in an area bloody for years from turf fights between the remains of the Gulf Cartel and the old Zetas Cartel.
According to authorities, four of the dead have so far been identified – two Guatemalans and two Mexicans. Their names were not released by officials, but relatives of one of the dead Mexicans said he was a trafficker.
Of the 19 bodies examined by experts, 16 were men, one female and the other two so badly burned that their sex had not yet been determined.
The forensic findings confirmed the fears of families in a rural indigenous farming community in Guatemala who said they lost contact with 13 migrants on their trip to the United States.
The truck carrying the bodies had 113 impacts, but authorities were puzzled that almost no spent cartridge cases were found at the scene.
This initially led investigators to speculate that the shootings might have taken place elsewhere and the truck drove to the spot where it was set on fire.
But Barrios Mojica said the state police officers charged in the murders knew their cartridge case could give them away, and therefore likely captured her.
“The power grows behind the hypothesis that the crime scene was changed due to the lack of shells,” he said.
Describing the hours that led to the killings, Barrios Mojica said the truck carrying the victims appears to be part of a larger convoy of vehicles transporting migrants from Guatemala and El Salvador to smuggle them across the US border. He said the trucks were also carrying armed men to provide protection.
Barrios Mojica did not rule out that the killings could have been a quarrel between drug gangs fighting for the territory and the right to charge migrant smugglers for transit through “their” territory.
The massacre is the latest chapter in Tamaulipas’ history of police corruption. In most cities in the state, the city police force was disbanded years ago as the officers were often paid by the cartels. A more professional state police force should be the answer, a belief that collapsed with the arrests announced on Tuesday.
Repeating the 2010 massacre has long been one of the Mexican government’s worst nightmares.
In August 2010, members of the Zetas cartel stopped two tractor units carrying dozens of mostly Central American migrants and took them to a ranch in the town of San Fernando, Tamaulipas. After the migrants refused to work for the cartel, they were blindfolded, handcuffed to the ground and shot.
In 2019, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said: “We do not want a repetition of terrible, unfortunate deeds like San Fernando.”
Relatives of migrants from the Guatemalan province of San Marcos are so convinced that 13 of the 19 charred bodies were their relatives that some families have already erected traditional altars with flowers and photographs for the dead.
Some of the relatives in Guatemala reported phone calls from the migrant smuggler who took the group of 10 men and three women north and told them that their family members were dead. Relatives said they lost contact with them around January 21st.