Mexican officials sought to minimize “the state’s responsibility” for the slayings of scores of migrants and other travelers kidnapped from intercity buses as part of a drug cartel turf war in the northern state of Tamaulipas, according to a declassified report from U.S. officials in Mexico. This and related records were obtained by the National Security Archive under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act and are being published here for the first time.
The documents bear directly on a parallel access to information case in Mexico, now in the hands of the state’s information commissioners (IFAI). At issue is the government’s investigative file on killings in and around the town of San Fernando (Tamaulipas).
The newly-declassified reports detail horrifying acts of violence perpetrated by rival Mexican drug cartels in the last several years, including the San Fernando massacres of 2010 and 2011, which took the lives of more than 250 people, many of them migrants. Early reports on the massacres describe how the gunmen pulled groups of victims from commercial bus lines, killing those who refused to work for the cartels and dumping many of the bodies in mass graves. Mexican officials told the U.S. they believed “that the majority of the victims discovered were migrants heading to the US who were intercepted en route and unable to pay what was demanded of them.”
Regional highways had become killing zones for the rival gangs that controlled both the drug trade and “the business of illegal migration,” according to a U.S. Embassy report written during the height of the violence in 2011. The Embassy cited information indicating that “migration authorities and local police” in Mexico “often turn a blind eye or collude in” the kidnappings and massacres carried out by the drug cartels.
“Tamaulipas officials appear to be trying to downplay both the San Fernando discoveries and the state’s responsibility for them, even though a recent trip to Ciudad Victoria revealed state officials fully cognizant of the hazards of highway travel in this area.” – U.S. Consulate, Matamoros.
The new information comes shortly after a Mexican federal court ordered the information commissioners at IFAI to decide if the August 2010 massacre of 72 Central American migrants by the feared Zetas drug cartel could be considered a grave violation of human rights according to the guidelines established by Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
Two years ago, Article 19, a group dedicated to the right to information and freedom of expression, asked Mexico’s Attorney General (PGR) to publish a public version of its preliminary investigation into the 2010 massacre. The Attorney General’s office denied the request, citing a provision in Mexico’s access law which exempts such files from release. Article 19 then appealed the case to IFAI, citing another part of the law that prohibits the withholding of any information related to “the investigation of grave violations of human rights or crimes against humanity.” IFAI denied the appeal, confirming PGR’s decision to deny the records on the basis that all records relating to preliminary judicial investigations are exempt from release.
Article 19 then took its case to court, arguing that the human rights provision applies because the state participated in these crimes through omission. The court’s recent decision sent the case back to the IFAI commissioners, who will now determine whether the San Fernando killings could be considered human rights violations. If so, IFAI has signaled that it will apply the principle of maximum publicity and order the PGR to produce a public copy of its investigative file.
The declassified collection published today shows that state and local officials in Mexico were well aware of, but did little to prevent, cartel-related violence in the northeast. One U.S. intelligence report from the period just before the San Fernando passenger bus massacres, cites “corroborated and reliable information” on the widespread use of roadblocks along highways in the region. “The Gulf Cartel has been attacking small plazas in Tamaulipas,” reads the report from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). “The attacks occur simply because the area belongs to the Zetas.”
Mexican authorities also deliberately tried to minimize the extent of the carnage. When nearly 200 more people were slaughtered under similar circumstances in 2011, Mexican officials “avoided publicly drawing attention to the level of violence in Tamaulipas,” according to the Embassy, despite having identified “highway violence” as “their top concern.” Other Mexican officials, “speaking off the record,” told the U.S. that the bodies of victims were “being split up to make the total number less obvious and thus less alarming.”
IFAI must now determine whether or not the Mexican government’s failure to prevent the killings and prosecute those responsible qualifies as a human rights violation through omission. The decision—whichever way it goes—will have serious repercussions for human rights and the right to truth in Mexico. Three years after the 2010 San Fernando massacre, the two cases remain mired in secrecy and impunity. Despite dozens of arrests, including at least 16 members of the San Fernando police force, none of the intellectual authors or facilitators of the crime have been convicted. Article 19 and its allies simply want to know why.
Watch and share the videos made by Article 19 to raise awareness about the importance that IFAI should give to the case (In Spanish):
“San Fernando: Access to information on grave human rights violations”
“The Truth about San Fernando”