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San Fernando Migrant Massacre: How US, Mexican and Latin American Governments Share Responsibility

Close-up of M4 carbine assault rifle held by a special forces soldier on the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Mexico is the leading case in Latin America of the devastating effects of US policies related to migration, free trade and the so-called “drug war.” The victims include tens of thousands of migrants who undertake the long, difficult journey toward the United States through Mexican territory from Central America and beyond. An international tribunal has recently concluded that the San Fernando Massacre of August 2010 is a crucial example underlining the convergent responsibilities of the governments of Mexico, the United States and countries of origin.

Human rights advocates have long alleged that Mexican . . . authorities . . . shared responsibility for this and similar incidents ultimately attributable to Mexico’s role in US-promoted efforts to contain and reduce the flow of migrants heading to the United States through Mexican territory.

Migrant rights defenders throughout Mexico recently commemorated the fourth anniversary of the massacre, which resulted in the death of 72 migrants in transit, including 13 women, en route to the United States from six countries. Of those killed, 24 were originally from Honduras, 14 from El Salvador, 13 from Guatemala, five from Ecuador, four from Brazil and one from India. Eleven have yet to be identified, due to the mishandling of evidence from the site of the crime and the bodies as a result of flawed forensic procedures. At least two survivors (from Ecuador and Honduras) are currently in witness protection programs, due to recurrent threats to their lives. San Fernando is located in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, about an hour and a half from the United States border.

The massacre was immediately blamed on Mexico’s most violent drug cartel, a shadowy group with paramilitary origins, known as Los Zetas. But human rights advocates have long alleged that Mexican civilian, police and military authorities at all levels of government (federal, state, and local) shared responsibility for this and similar incidents ultimately attributable to Mexico’s role in US-promoted efforts to contain and reduce the flow of migrants heading to the United States through Mexican territory.

This massacre is the worst single incident in Mexico’s bloody US-backed “drug war,” which has ravaged the country in the last seven years, producing over 125,000 civilian victims, some 25,000 forced disappearances and more than 250,000 people who have been internally displaced or forced into exile. The victims during this period also include an estimated 20,000 migrants who have been kidnapped each year since 2007 and countless others who have been extorted, assaulted and raped (estimates indicate that 80 percent of all migrant women and girls are victims of sexual abuse or rape). The San Fernando Massacre is also the worst single human rights crime in Mexican history since the October 2, 1968, massacre of students in Tlatelolco, in Mexico City in 1968.

San Fernando, at the epicenter of the country’s “drug war,” is also the site where some 47 mass graves, containing at least 193 bodies, were discovered seven months after the massacre, in April 2011. Only 30 percent of these bodies have been identified thus far, but most of those whose identities or places of origin have been confirmed are also migrants, primarily of Mexican, Central American and Asian origin.

The Massacre

Investigative journalists in both Mexico and the United States have gradually reconstructed the immediate circumstances which led first to the massacre and then to the mass graves:

That afternoon in August 22, 2010, … two freight trucks were traveling on Highway 101. About nine miles north of San Fernando, the hopes of the migrants ended, and their nightmare began; they encountered three vehicles blocking the highway carrying armed men with their faces covered.

“We’re Zetas,” they identified themselves, then asked the migrants to get off the trucks. Then they took them in pickup trucks to the warehouse of an abandoned ranch. There, 58 men and 14 women were taken down off the trucks and placed against the walls in the store room. First, they questioned them to find out where they were coming from and what they did for a living. They all denied they were working for the Gulf Cartel.

Their captors wanted to force them to work for them, but the migrants refused the offer. In the face of such a refusal, they made them lie down on the floor with their faces (facing) down. They told them not to look up and then shot them with bursts of bullets from assault rifles. To make sure nobody was left alive, they fired the coup de grace into their heads.

A man from Ecuador who was not hit by the bursts of gunfire and whose coup de grace went into his neck and came out through his jaw pretended he was dead and waited until the executioners left. He left the ranch and walked almost 15 miles until he found some Marines and asked for help. “The massacre was a little while ago,” he told them, but they didn’t believe him.

The incident was reported to their superiors, who ordered an aerial reconnaissance of the area. That afternoon, when the Army helicopter was flying near the store room, they were attacked.

It was getting dark on August 23, and the Marines withdrew to Matamoros. But they came back to the ranch the next day with reinforcements. There they found the 72 bodies.

The Hearing

An international jury* of human rights scholars, defenders and migration policy experts from several countries convened as part of a three-year inquiry by the Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT), successor to the Russell Tribunal, which investigated US war crimes in Vietnam and Southeast Asia in the 1960s. The jury heard live testimony in Mexico City in August 2013, presented by family members of victims of the massacre from Guatemala and Brazil and from the mother of a Honduran migrant who disappeared under similar circumstances and who, it is suspected, may be among the victims of the mass graves.

The jury concluded that the US and Mexican governments are jointly responsible for a generalized pattern of grave human rights violations committed against migrants in transit on Mexican territory, on their way to the United States, between 2010 and 2014.

Angela Pineda of Chiquimula, Guatemala, testified that she lost five members of her family in the massacre, including her husband, daughter, son, daughter-in-law and a cousin who were all traveling together. Maria da Gloria Aires of Brazil, from the southeastern region of Minas Gerais, appeared before the tribunal in memory of her young nephew, Juliard, 19, who died in the massacre together with his friend Herminio, 24.

Pineda and Aires complained bitterly to the tribunal about the fact that both of them learned of the death of their family members from TV and radio news reports, rather than from the governments of Mexico or their countries, and that the bodies of Aires’ nephew and of Pineda’s daughter Mayra had not been adequately identified and had either been sent mistakenly first to other countries or switched with other remains.

Other victims included Yedmi Victoria Castro, 15, of Pasaquina, El Salvador, who was seeking to be reunited with her mother, Mariluz Castro, who had migrated previously to New York.

Summary of Jury’s findings

The failure to achieve comprehensive immigration reform in the United States has exacerbated the negative effects of US policies, including the increasing separation and fragmentation of families as a result of increased deportations due to stepped-up measures of interior enforcement.

The jury concluded that the US and Mexican governments are jointly responsible for a generalized pattern of grave human rights violations committed against migrants in transit on Mexican territory, on their way to the United States, between 2010 and 2014. The jury also concluded that the massacre was the predictable and thus preventable result of actions and omissions by Mexican authorities responsible for systematic, egregious and recurrent human rights violations against migrants in transit. These violations include the Mexican government’s failure to protect migrants in transit from death or injury due to serious abuses committed by drug traffickers and human traffickers in complicity with Mexican authorities.

The jury concluded that these abuses constituted a policy of state terror against migrants (many of them of indigenous origin and African descent and increasing numbers who are women and minors) because of the enhanced vulnerability associated with their undocumented status, within the context of the 72 victims of the San Fernando Massacre of August 2010 and of the 47 mass graves containing at least 193 additional bodies found in the same municipality in April 2011. The jury also concluded that the governments of the countries of origin (Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Ecuador, Brazil) of the migrant victims of the San Fernando Massacre and mass graves shared responsibility with the Mexican and US governments for fostering the conditions of vulnerability that paved the way for these mass crimes. This includes adoption of neoliberal free trade policies and committing human rights violations in these migrants’ communities of origin, which forced them to migrate in search of a dignified life.

Responsibility of the US Government

The jury’s conclusions emphasize the extent to which US migration policies have resulted in the militarization of the US-Mexico border and the criminalization of irregular flows of migrants from Mexico and beyond. This includes unprecedented joint efforts by the United States and Mexico to apply this approach to migrants in transit, primarily of Central American and Andean origin, on Mexican territory, at the same time as the combined effects of the neoliberal free trade policies promoted by NAFTA and CAFTA have intensified migration flows from both Mexico and Central America.

The jury also explored the implications of the current mass exodus of Central American migrant youth, children and women on their rights to temporary humanitarian protection, refuge, asylum and family reunification.

The failure to achieve comprehensive immigration reform in the United States has exacerbated the negative effects of US policies, including the increasing separation and fragmentation of families as a result of increased deportations due to stepped-up measures of interior enforcement.

At the same time, the United States has increased aid to Mexican authorities as part of the so-called “drug war” (pursuant to the Mérida Initiative, México’s equivalent of Plan Colombia, and the North American Partnership for Security and Prosperity, the national security component of NAFTA). The police and immigration forces receiving Merida Initiative aid have been repeatedly implicated in violations of the human rights of migrants.

Responsibility of the Mexican Government

Other issues or cases presented to the PPT in Mexico include recurrent patterns of harassment and threats against migrant shelters, rights defenders and migrant caravans organized to protest policies which violate migrant rights; policies of arbitrary and abusive detention and other forms of inhuman and degrading treatment of migrants in transit on Mexican territory – including torture.

The jury’s findings are also based on declassified official documents from US government agencies – including the US Department of Homeland Security, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), the National Security Agency (NSA), the DEA, US Embassy in Mexico and Consulates – analyzed and posted in November 2013 by the National Security Archive at George Washington University, regarding the context which led to the San Fernando Massacre and mass graves. These documents further illustrate that the Mexican government had advance knowledge of the extent of the dangers faced by migrants, yet failed to take action.

These documents include cables from the US Embassy in Mexico City dating back to August, 2007, that highlight the perils confronting migrants on transit through Mexico due to the combined effects of violence from drug cartels such as the Zetas, complicity by government officials at all levels and lack of investigation and prosecution of crimes committed against migrants. This includes increasing numbers of abuses (such as assaults and thefts) against migrants attributed to the military as they were assigned key public security duties in regions such as Tamaulipas as part of the “drug war.”

The June 15, 2009, issue of Proceso, Mexico’s most widely circulated weekly news magazine, featured threats of mass kidnappings against migrants as its cover story and included detailed reports emphasizing and updating the same factors reflected in the August 2007 cables from the embassy, including specifically heightened dangers for migrants in Tamaulipas.

Shortly afterward, a July 2009 DEA Assessment of the Zetas drew attention to their increasing power and collaboration with the Guatemalan military Special Forces unit known as the Kaibiles. The Kaibiles have been linked by the UN-backed Truth Commission in 1999 and by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, in several key decisions over the past decade, to many of the worst and most recurrent human rights abuses committed during the genocidal internal conflict in Guatemala, including several of the bloodiest massacres characterized by especially brutal tactics. Links between the Zetas and both active members and deserters from the Kaibiles were also referred to by a DEA cable dated May 28, 2010.

One of the expert witnesses in the PPT hearings regarding the San Fernando cases in Mexico City in August 2013 is a former brigadier general in the Mexican Army named Francisco Gallardo, who became a political prisoner after being thrown in jail for his efforts to promote the creation of a human rights ombudsman within the Armed Forces. He linked the tactics and methodologies characteristic of the Kaibiles and paramilitary forces in Colombia to those employed by the perpetrators of the San Fernando Massacre and mass graves. Zetas and former Kaibiles were later blamed for a massacre involving 29 victims in Guatemala’s remote Petén region in May 2011 (shortly after the mass graves were found in San Fernando), which resulted in the forced displacement of 68 families (more than 250 people) who fled over the Mexican border to the region near Tenosique, Tabasco, and were later arbitrarily deported by Mexican authorities in December 2011.

A March 25, 2010, cable from the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) emphasizes “escalating violence in the region” of Tamaulipas, one of those with the highest numbers of troops concentrated in a single area in the country. This document also cites “corroborated and reliable information” regarding the widespread use by the Zetas of roadblocks along local highways. According to the National Security Archive’s analysis, “this is the first mention in the declassified documents of roadblocks used by the cartels in Tamaulipas, which was the method used to stop buses carrying passengers and carry out the San Fernando massacres.”

Another embassy report soon afterward (April 2010) from its Narcotics Affairs section, emphasized the extent to which the Zetas’ activities in the country’s northern region, including Tamaulipas, were characterized by “near total impunity in the face of compromised local security forces” and by increasing incidents of armed conflict between the Zetas and other cartels over control of this region. Within this context of inter-cartel warfare, the March 25, 2010, cable also warns that “a retaliatory strike by Los Zetas is likely inevitable.” Some have argued that the August 2010 massacre could be explained in part as an acute expression of such conflicts between cartels over the control of human trafficking flowing into San Fernando and Tamaulipas.

Fundamental human rights cannot be freely exercised within contexts characterized by convergent processes of state, structural and systemic violence that make a dignified and secure life impossible in communities and countries of origin of migrants. These forms of violence include militarization, paramilitarism and the effects of neoliberal “free market” and “free trade” policies, mega-development projects involving mining, and other forms of exploitation of natural resources which result in environmental devastation and climate change. For their complicity in creating and perpetuating this violence against migrants, the governments of Mexico, the United States and countries of origin must be held to account.

* The Permanent People’s Tribunal jury included: Dr. Jorge Bustamante, ex UN Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights of Migrants, COLEF; Iver Orstavik, Rafto Foundation for Human Rights, Bergen, Noruega; Leticia Calderón, Instituto Mora, Mexico City; Laura Carlsen, Americas Program, Center for International Policy-CIP, Washington DC/Mexico City; José Rosario Marroquín, Centro PRO DH; Pedro González Gómez, Asamblea de Migrantes Indígenas del DF; David Velasco, ITESO; Jesús Antonio de la Torre Rangel, UAA; Luis Daniel Vázquez, FLACSO; Miguel Pulido, director, FUNDAR; Azadeh Shahshahani, president, National Lawyers’ Guild, US; Hans Egil Offerdal, theologian/human rights scholar, Univ. de Bergen, Noruega; Immanuel Ness, CUNY Center for Workers Education, Brooklyn College; Fiona McPhail, jurist, representative of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers (UK); Rosa Martha Zárate, Alianza de ExBraceros del Norte; Gilberto Parra, Centro Jalisciense de Atención al Adulto Mayor y Migrante, Guadalajara.

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