Unearthing the Truth: Declassified Files on Mexican State Violence Beyond Ayotzinapa
This article was originally posted on the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA).
“I feel desperate looking for my daughter because I don’t have any proof, I have questions about everything that they’ve done but they never looked for me; they never handed over evidence,” Mirna del Carmen Solórzano told Mexican news outlet Sin Embargo on March 20, 2014. Similar sentiments have been expressed by family members of the 43 Ayotzinapa rural teachers college students who were disappeared on September 26 at the hands oflocal and federal police reportedly working in coordination with the drug cartel Guerreros Unidos. But in this case, Mirna’s daughter was found dead over four years prior, in a massacre of Central American migrants that foreshadowed what became deafeningly clear in September: that the Mexican state is frequently complicit in the country’s greatest human rights atrocities.
In what is now called the San Fernando Massacre, Mirna’s daughter and 71 other migrants—many en route from Central America to the United States—were captured and murdered in late August 2010. All public accounts indicate they died at the hands of the criminal organization Los Zetas. While the August 2010 San Fernando Massacre was the most well-reported case of migrant abuse in Mexico at the time, known for its scale and level of atrocity, it was only part of a larger pattern of violence targeting migrants, mostly from Central America, traveling north towards the U.S.-Mexico border. While this case may be seemingly unrelated to the abduction of the 43 Ayotzinapa students, developments in accessing information on the former may have implications on efforts to uncover truth and push for accountability for the later.
Slowly, information on the San Fernando massacre and related violence against migrants is surfacing from behind closed government doors. The dramatic increase in U.S. security assistance programs in Mexico—ushered in through the Mérida Initiative inaugurated in 2008—paralleled a surge in internal government reporting produced by U.S. officials. Open-government proponents have used the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to gain access to these internal files, which illuminate the links between U.S.-funded counter-drug initiatives and human rights abuses. This article cites a collection of formerly secret declassified files, many of which have been published by the U.S.-National Security Archive(NSA), disseminated by investigative journalists from news outlets such as Proceso andAristegui Noticias in Mexico, cited as evidence in ongoing legal cases, and used for clarification purposes by a network of activists working to defend migrant rights and increase transparency and accountability for migrant abuses. The slow trickle of such files from the U.S. state archives entails essential clues to understanding the migrant massacres, and is informing the civil society response to the Ayotzinapa disappearances today.
U.S. and Mexican documents from 2011 provide details of the role of government officials in violations targeting migrants in Tamaulipas, where the San Fernando Massacre occured, and other regions of Mexico. In January 2011, U.S. Embassy officials reported internally on receiving “anecdotal evidence” that migrant authorities and local police were turning a blind eye or colluding in routine forms of extortion, kidnapping, and trafficking of migrants, emphasizing the role of the state in the violence.
In April and June of 2011, hundreds of more bodies were discovered in mass graves in the same region. During that time, the Mexican government took action to downplay the severity of the violence, particularly leading up to Easter Week (also known as Semana Santa, or Holy Week), so as to not deter tourism in the area. Mexican officials told U.S. Consulate officers in secret that “the bodies are being split up to make the total number less obvious and thus less alarming.” Consulate officers are documented as having acknowledged that “Tamaulipas officials appear to be trying to downplay both the San Fernando discoveries and the state’s responsibility” for the massacres in the region. Such candid observations were shared internally between U.S. officials, but shielded from public scrutiny just as the United States was ratcheting up Mérida Initiative security assistance to Mexico and the region.
In April, U.S. consulate officials also noted that 17 San Fernando municipal police officers were arrested in connection with the aforementioned April 2011 discovery of 196 bodies in the mass graves, and seven officers were arrested in Reynosa connected to a separate kidnapping of 171 migrants. The following month, the U.S. Embassy reported on the firing of seven top officials from the National Migration Institute (INM) amid allegations of involvement in the kidnapping of migrants. INM released its own records on this case in response to information requests and a resolution issued by Mexico’s Federal Institute for Access to Information (IFAI), but kept secret the names of the officials implicated in the kidnappings. In November 2011, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (the Pentagon’s intelligence wing) reported on information it received of police officer involvement with drug trafficking and undocumented migrant smuggling organizations.
Similar to the case of Ayotzinapa, where federal authorities have stated that the Mayor of Iguala and his wife had been operating in collusion with corrupt police and local drug gangs, officials in Tamaulipas have been linked to organized criminal networks. In a cable from February 2012, the U.S. Embassy sent information back to Washington on investigationsunderway of three successive governors of Tamaulipas for suspected links to organized crime. In 2014, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) identified the governor at the time of the 2010 massacre, Eugenio Hernández Flores, as having received bribes from the Zetasso the cartel could operate freely in Tamaulipas. The governor proceeding Hernández, Tomás Yarrington, is now wanted for extradition to the United States on charges of money laundering and taking bribes from the Gulf and Zetas cartels. Internal investigative files released by Mexico’s own federal prosecutors have revealed that local police were allegedly paid by the Zetas to act as vigilantes (labores de halcones), intercept people, turn them over to the cartel, and provide cover for their members. As today’s Proceso investigation reveals, a newly disclosed document released to the National Security Archive’s Migration Declassified project lays bare the depths of these connections between the police and Zetas at the time of the San Fernando massacres.