SAN PEDRO PINULA, Guatemala – For seven years, Carolina Nájera has been the first to wake up to an altar of the Virgin of Guadalupe in her home, cross herself in front of the picture and light a candle in memory of her husband Juan Francisco Salguero.
It is a way to have him close, she says, but above all to give light and calm to his soul.
Carolina, 31, imagines that her husband must have lived through hell in the moments before he died.
Salguero left his home in February 2014 and never returned to his town of San Pedro Pinula, a community of 61,000 in the Jalapa department in southern Guatemala.
Also his fellow travelers, who included neighbors and some of them relatives: Emiliano Nájera, Gustavo Nájera, José Ronaldo Morales, Maximinio Gómez, Melvin Mateo, Edgar Amilcar, Arias Segura, Pedro Gómez and Silvestre Pérez.
The nine Guatemalans were kidnapped and murdered 2,200 kilometers away in Tamaulipas, Mexico. In a single mention in 2018, a news agency reported that three years later a secret grave had been found and their bodies had been exhumed and identified.
What the families know is still incomplete. The fact that they were able to return home the remains of their loved ones is testament to their persistent efforts to seek help and find their loved ones when they have been missing.
The massacre occurred in Güemez, Tamaulipas, following the records of an investigation that the Mexican and Guatemalan authorities never closed.
Noticias Telemundo Investiga had access to part of the investigation folder, the forensic reports and the testimony of the relatives of the migrants in order to reconstruct the events of this forgotten massacre.
Family Prayers and $ 11,600
The nine migrants each paid between 50,000 and 90,000 quetzals (US $ 6,500 and US $ 11,600, respectively) requested by a coyote known to the community and began their journey to the United States on February 10, 2014. You would become part of a larger group of people from the region traveling north. The coyote told them the trip was safe.
Gustavo Nájera, 35, was part of the nine. “We never thought what would happen next,” says Benjamin, his brother.
Two weeks earlier, Gustavo had come home excited and told the family that he had the opportunity to travel to the United States. He’d had the idea of leaving for years, but between caring for his seven children and paying the debt, it was almost impossible to raise the money he would need. But then he found a contractor or broker to get access to the coyote, the person who negotiates with the families the price and date of departure.
This intermediary told them to leave a house or land as security to cover the cost of the trip. The family accepted the deal.
“Before going to the US, the coyote visited the house and said he would accept it. To guarantee Gustavo’s passage, we gave him the deeds so that he could keep the house if we didn’t pay the full cost of the trip, ”said Benjamin.
They left the San Luis Jilotepeque Ward in the early hours of February 10th. There they had to meet the coyote “Marcos”, who brought them to Mexico to deliver them to another coyote. They had to bring the latter across the US border.
The day before Gustavo left, they said goodbye for the last time: the family got together, ate together, hugged and prayed that everything would go well.
“It seems that the prayers weren’t enough because we never imagined that it would be the last time we’d share food with him and I could see my brother in the eye,” said Benjamín, flipping through the family photo album.
“We have to start looking for her”
Lorena Morales remembers playing with her three years younger brother José Ronaldo and posing as a bus driver. It was so much fun; While one pretended to be the driver, the other calculated the fare. You’d spend hours and hours playing. They were very close.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get over his death. I still think that one day he will come and we will sit in the trees where we played as children, ”she said of her brother, who was 21 years old, when she last saw him.
Two days after the start of the trip, José Ronaldo called Lorena to deposit 6,000 quetzals (US $ 770) for the coyote. They wanted to go to Mexico and if he didn’t deposit the money they would take him back to Guatemala, he told his sister.
Gustavo Nájera called his mother Marta seven days after he left Guatemala. He told her that the group was near the border with the United States in Reynosa, Tamaulipas state, Mexico.
This was the last message from anyone in the group of migrants before they disappeared.
“Two weeks after the last call, the atmosphere felt tense. The families stopped hearing from them and fear began to invade us, ”said Morales.
Carolina Nájera waited the 20 days her husband told her it would take him to reach the US. The coyote knew: no one could carry a cell phone, so Juan Francisco left the house with just a change of clothes, another pair of shoes, and his ID.
After 20 days, Carolina dialed the coyote’s number. On the other end of the phone, she heard an angry voice: “Why are you calling me? Everything is going well, don’t worry. “
When her husband left, Carolina was two months pregnant taking care of her then 2-year-old son who had cerebral palsy. Juan Francisco’s work as a farmer wasn’t enough to pay the boy’s doctors, so he decided to try his luck in finding a job in the United States to send money to his family.
Weeks passed and fathers, mothers, women, children and siblings of some of the nine migrants met every evening. “We have to look for them,” said Gustavo Nájera’s mother Marta. They kept asking the coyote, Morales even went to his house to ask him. “I tried to record him on a cell phone, but he spotted it and threatened to kill me if I did.”
A prison, a warehouse and a possible kidnapping
The coyote insisted that the group of migrants was fine; He said they were only waiting because crossing the border had become difficult.
The relatives held back for a few more days, but desperate to hear from their loved ones, they faced the coyote again and from here the trail of the migrants blurred.
According to the investigation folder, there were indications that needed to be investigated and confirmed.
One of them was that the trafficker told families that the group had been arrested by police and was held in a prison called “La Grande” in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. This data was recorded but never examined by the then Attorney General’s office. There is no evidence that there is a prison known by that nickname there.
Weeks later, a young man who was part of the larger migrant group traveling north called relatives and said they had been locked in a warehouse five minutes from the Rio Grande. The young man stated that he could cross the US border; he had managed to escape from the basement and go with another coyote. On US soil, he contacted some of the relatives of the nine missing migrants from San Pedro Pinula and told them what had happened.
The Mexican Attorney General’s office has raised the possibility that they were kidnapped by members of organized crime in this warehouse, but this information has not been verified by them.
The investigators still had a clue. The relatives said the coyote they hired in Guatemala told them that he received a call from one of the guides on February 18, 2014. He told them that the group had taken a bus in Guanajuato, passed Lagos de Moreno in Jalisco, and arrived in Tamaulipas. There a judicial or federal police checkpoint (this is indicated in the investigation folder) was waiting for them to collect a bribe so that they could continue on the road. According to the coyote, the driver informed him that the police at the checkpoint had taken the migrants off the bus and ordered the driver to leave the bus.
But this report could not be confirmed either. Nobody knows what really happened. The coyote was never arrested and did not provide any further information. He also threatened family members not to ask him any more.
The relatives went to the Guatemalan prosecutor’s office three months after the migrants disappeared, where officials testified and assured it was up to the Mexican government to begin the investigation.
In Mexico, the Tamaulipas Prosecutor’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office opened an investigation at the request of the Guatemalan government. For more than a year, from 2014 to 2015, no government agency has made progress on the investigation.
Morales said it was the worst year of her life and described it as a “bad dream”. Today she regrets paying the coyote who brought the group to Tamaulipas. “Why did I pay?” she said as she hugged the wooden frame that holds her brother’s photo. Morales believes the coyote turned her over to organized crime.
According to a recent report by the Mexican Federation of Public Human Rights Organizations (FMOPDH) at least 2,000 migrants disappeared on Mexican territory in 2020. The US State Department has the Mexican state of Tamaulipas at the same level of danger as countries like Syria and Iraq.
Human remains – and beer cans
On February 16, 2015, an agent from the Tamaulipas Public Ministry reported the discovery of the secret tomb in Güemez, Tamaulipas.
The Mexican army found it in an area surrounded by fruit trees. It was an excavation over three feet long and about a foot and a half wide.
In the background were bones of human forearms and a pair of hands tied with a belt, as well as empty beer cans and two glass bottles.
The experts began the excavation and found six other human bodies. A total of 16 bodies were exhumed, nine of which belonged to the group of Guatemalans who left San Pedro Pinula in February 2014.
The experts found an identity card issued by the Guatemalan government on behalf of Santos Cruz Gómez Castro, a resident of El Zunzo, a community near San Pedro Pinula, in the trouser pocket of one of the bodies. This would become the common thread used to identify the rest of the bodies.
After the bodies were exhumed, they remained frozen in the amphitheater of the Forensic Medical Service in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas, until the remains of the nine migrants were identified in 2018 when the Foundation for Justice and the Rule of Law took over the legal representation of family members .
The Argentine Forensic Anthropology team also participated in the identification process. This team helped investigate the 43 rural college students from Ayotzinapa, Mexico, who went missing in 2014 after being admitted to Iguala by local authorities.
In their report, the Argentine experts found that the Guatemalan migrants had been tortured before they were killed with a gun. Some were shot in the head. All had the same degree of decomposition and similar injuries. Forensics concluded that they were murdered on the same day and under similar circumstances.
The bodies of three other migrants were also found: Carlos Roberto Mejía Sánchez, Iris Teresa Reyes Rubí and Ramón Edgardo Vásquez Díaz.
A grim return home
The nine migrants, who left San Pedro Pinula together on the same day, returned to their city on the same day, four years and eight months later, on October 27, 2018. But they did this in wooden boxes.
The coffins were buried in the local cemetery in the presence of many residents who attended the funeral, shocked by a tragedy they had just learned about. Everyone wondered how the relatives had managed to find the bodies after almost five years.
Five massacres of migrants and one forgotten massacre
It was in May 2014 when one of Gustavo Nájera’s eight siblings asked that Foundation for Justice and Democratic Rule of Law, (FJDRL) – a non-governmental organization based in Mexico City – for help locating the group.
“If we hadn’t intervened, no company in Mexico would have opened an investigation into the events,” said Fabianne Cabaret, one of the group’s coordinators.
The migrants’ relatives said their country’s government had not helped. “They didn’t support us,” said Carolina Nájera.
“Guatemala has annulled the process of taking DNA samples from us and refused to receive the bodies,” said Benjamin Nájera.
Noticias Telemundo contacted the Guatemalan embassy in Mexico but received no response to a request for comment.
“The common denominator is impunity”
The discovery of the mass grave at Güemez had no impact or coverage of other massacres. No one spoke of the grave when the Mexican Army found it.
“Nobody would have remembered her. In those years, 2014-2015, graves were no longer counted, “said Benjamín Nájera.” At the level of truth, justice, and reparation, impunity is the common denominator. It is the lack of clarity about how the events took place and the lack of attention and redress for the families, especially families who do not live on Mexican territory. “
Statements on the Mexican government’s website confirm the dangers of the region. “When you consider that 63 percent of migrants who traveled through Mexico and were returned by US authorities said they entered via the state of Tamaulipas, one can conclude that the Gulf of Mexico migration route is the largest used, but it is also the riskiest as only in Tamaulipas did four out of ten migrants who came through Veracruz and Tabasco die. “
The Güemez massacre is one in the history of the last decade.
In August 2014, 72 migrants, 58 men and 14 women, mainly from Central and South America, were murdered in the “San Fernando Massacre”. According to investigators, they were killed after families failed to pay to rescue them and they refused to be recruited by the Zetas, the criminal group blamed for the executions.
The next year, in April 2011, the remains of 193 people were discovered in 48 secret graves. The bodies of most of the migrants en route to the United States showed signs of arbitrary execution; 130 died from beating with blunt objects – some of victims forced to do so – and 80 percent of the remains showed evidence of torture.
In May 2012, the Mexican Army reported the discovery of 49 human torsos on a highway in the municipality of Cadereyta, Nuevo León. There were 43 men and six women, and only 10 Honduran victims who fled their country to the US have been identified.
More recently, in January and also in Tamaulipas, 19 people of Guatemalan and Mexican origins were burned about 43 miles from the US border. Twelve state police officers were arrested for their possible involvement in the killings.
None of the cases have been fully resolved, nor have those responsible been brought to justice.
“We can leave flowers on their graves, but we ask for truth, justice and that the Mexican authorities conduct an investigation,” said Carolina Nájera.
FJDRL cabaret says that justice in the Güemez massacre case requires first knowing what happened and why the migrants were killed, which is almost impossible. “Another massacre is more likely to occur,” said Cabaret, “before we know the truth about the previous ones.”