As demonstrators across Mexico take to the streets to protest the government’s involvement in the September 2014 disappearance of 43 students in Iguala, Guerrero, a case bearing many of the same grim hallmarks is getting renewed attention.
Today, in a new article for The Nation, I examine newly-declassified evidence of police involvement in the 2011 San Fernando massacre and what it all means for access to information on human rights cases in Mexico.
In August 2010, the Zetas criminal group abducted and killed 72 people pulled from buses traveling the highways near San Fernando, Tamaulipas, a town more than 1,000 kilometers northeast of Guerrero. The remains of 193 people were discovered buried in dozens of mass graves in the same part of the state the following April. Members of the Zetas and 17 San Fernando municipal police officers were arrested in connection with the 2011 disappearances and several were indicted. But additional details about the investigation remained under wraps until the Archive succeeded in forcing Mexico’s attorney general’s office to declassify a key document detailing the government’s early findings in the case.
As in the Iguala case, federal authorities suspected that local officials helped organize the killings. We now know that those early suspicions were well-grounded. Produced by the Subprocuraduría Especializada en Investigación de Delincuencia Organizada (SEIDO)—an investigative unit of the attorney general’s office that focuses on organized crime—the memo describes a robust and routine pattern of narco-police collaboration in San Fernando. Captured Zetas told investigators that police acted as lookouts for the group, helped with “the interception or persons,” and turned a blind eye to their illegal activities.
“I know that police and transit officials in San Fernando help the Zetas organization,” testified Álvaro Alba Terrazas, one of the 17 police officers detained. “Rather than take detainees to the Pentágano, which is to say the municipal jail, they would deliver them to the Zetas.” Terrazas also identified two other San Fernando cops on the Zetas’ payroll. The statement excerpted in the memo does not specify which of their prisoners were handed over to the Zetas or why.
The revelation that San Fernando police worked hand-in-glove with the Zetas during the San Fernando massacre comes as little surprise to a Mexican public wearily accustomed to hearing accounts of state-sponsored violence and official corruption. But as Sergio Aguayo, one of Mexico’s leading human rights scholars, points out, there is a “big difference [between] the belief that something happened and having the information that shows it.” “In this case there is no longer any doubt,” Aguayo said on MVS Noticias. “The municipal police of San Fernando, Tamaulipas, were at the service of the Zetas.”
The article also looks at formerly secret U.S. documents on the Zetas that lend credence to the first-hand accounts of police corruption described in the SEIDO memo, depicting the Zetas as a ruthless criminal organization with elite military training and an unmatched ability to compromise state and local security forces.