Unearthing the Truth: Mexican State Violence Beyond Ayotzinapa

“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 of local 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 and Aristegui 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.

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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 investigations underway 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 Zetas so 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.

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Family members of victims of the San Fernando massacres and other migrant abuses in Mexico continue to seek answers from state authorities. Organizations working in defense of migrant rights, such as Article 19 and the Foundation for Justice, are taking legal action to force Mexico’s government agencies to disclose official records with classified information on the cases. In April 2014, a lower court judge found that case files on the San Fernando massacres and other abuses against migrants should be disclosed, after determining the existence of, prima facie, grave human rights violations. Following this decision, Mexico’s Federal Institute for Access to Information (IFAI) agreed with the assertion of the lower-court, and in August ordered the Office of the Public Prosecutor (PGR) to release its files relating to the arrest of the San Fernando municipal police officials in connection with the discovery of mass graves in April 2011. The PGR complied with the order in December, making the first official disclosure of any part of its investigative files concerning state complicity in the San Fernando massacres.

The court ruling and the decision of the Federal Institute for Access to Information point specifically to a special clause in Mexico’s transparency law, passed in 2002, which mandates disclosure of otherwise protected documents when they relate to grave violations of fundamental rights and crimes against humanity. The provision was included as a safeguard against the entrenched secrecy surrounding human rights abuses that reigned under the first seven decades of the notoriously corrupt Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)—the party of the incumbent President Enrique Peña Nieto.

This type of human rights override clause is meant to protect against State secrecy on human rights atrocities and has been modeled in legislation in other Latin American countries with histories of government repression. It is based on the notion that some gross violations are so egregious, they impact not only victims, but society has a whole, and should thus be exposed to the general public. Information advocates in Mexico have cited the clause to gain access to files on historical cases of state-sponsored abuse, including records on the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, and on enforced disappearance carried out in the state of Guerrero in the 1970s. But the recent 2014 IFAI resolution is the first instance the special human rights override has been invoked to compel the disclosure of information related to current abuses. Now, human rights activists are calling for IFAI to declare the Iguala disappearances a human rights violation, and compel the disclosure of related information.

Despite the information commission’s ruling ordering federal prosecutors to disclose the information on police connection to the earlier migrant massacres, the PGR is challenging the lower court ruling, and the First Chamber of the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case. The lawyers are preparing their arguments, and organizations representing the family members of the San Fernando victims have started a public campaign calling for access to the full truth behind the massacres.

While the result of the PGR’s challenge to the lower court’s ruling remains inconclusive, the ruling and the IFAI resolution have important implications on the government and civil society responses to the Ayotzinapa disappearances. Though it could take time for the human rights override clause to be invoked in the Ayotzinapa case (the decision of Mexico’s information commission to order the release of investigative files relating to the San Fernando massacres was made four years after the first bodies were discovered in the region), decisions on the San Fernando massacre have now provided important legal foundation to argue for access to information on the Ayotzinapa disappearances. The San Fernando developments have established that investigative files, even if they are ongoing, cannot be kept secret if they relate to gross human rights violations.

In the meantime, however, the efforts to identify remains and obtain information on the disappearances have taken on a sense of urgency, and included direct actions such as the creation of local action brigades, the seeking of precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the denouncement of continued impunity and lack of information around ongoing human rights violations at the Commission level.

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The official determination that abuses against migrants by Mexican officials constitute grave violations of human rights has implications not only for the Mexican government’s response to the massacre, but also for the U.S. policy response—particularly with regards to U.S. assistance and training for Mexican security forces. The Leahy Amendment, introduced in Congress in 1997 as part of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, and made permanent in the Foreign Assistance Act in 2008, strictly prohibits U.S. funding for foreign security units that violate human rights with impunity. Fifteen percent of the Mérida Initiative funding (roughly $2.4 billion to date) is subject to withholding based on human rights conditions.

While the Leahy Amendment has provided the channel for withholding further funding of the Mérida Initiative, these efforts are continually defeated. The State Department elected to hold back $26 million in September 2010 for Mexico until progress was made in the areas of transparency and combating impunity. This was reportedly the first time that the State Department’s periodic progress report on the Mérida Initiative—required by Congress to secure the 15% of funds tied to human rights stipulations—cited human rights concerns with the intention of impacting any portion of Mérida funding. The funding was nonetheless approved the following year. The same occurred with the State Department progress report delivered in August 2012, initially electing to hold back 2012 funding. This funding was also approved, despite the fact that the State Department’s own annual human rights reports for that year cited credible reports of police involvement in extrajudicial killings, kidnappings for ransom, and torture. In each occasion, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the State Department has consistently reported to Congress that human rights conditions under the agreement are being met, citing vague and incomplete progress toward Mexico’s meeting of the requirements.

Senator Patrick Leahy himself has been a vocal proponent of withholding Mérida funding in light of increasing exposure of Mexican state complicity in human rights abuses. He has challenged the State Department reporting, claiming publicly that there has not been sufficient evidence that Mexico is effectively addressing abuses by security forces. Leahy originally blocked $229 million in State Department funding for the Mérida Initiative in the fall of 2012, but $134 million of this was released in April 2013 after the Senate Appropriations Committee received an explanation from the State Department. In August 2013, Leahy and others in Congress took actions to block the release of the remaining $95 million in Mérida funding over human rights concerns, and it was still on hold as of April 2014. Even with the hold, training and equipment continues to pour in, as the governments agreed in March 2014 of this year to over $300 million in new aid.

These many exposures of major human rights concerns have yet to deter U.S. assistance; even in the wake of the groundbreaking case of the San Fernando massacre, support for Mexico’s migration authorities actually increased. This included equipment and training that incorporates biometric technology for migration authorities to track all persons entering and exiting Mexico, via air, land, and sea, as well as INM checkpoints. The State Department also awarded millions to U.S. contractors, such as the company Sarakkhi Associates, for Mexico’s national command intelligence center (The Bunker). And joint intelligence fusions centers, requested under the Calderón administration, were created to enhance intelligence sharing in 2010 in regions near the U.S.-Mexico border, and spread throughout the country in the following years, reaching as far as Mexico’s southern border.

The enforced disappearances in Iguala have heightened calls to cut off U.S. funding to Mexico, where it has become evident that federal authorities had knowledge that the mayor and his entire police force was connected to organized crime, and failed to respond to the situation. But when questioned about Ayotzinapa, the official U.S. response has been to condemn the disappearance of the 43 students while praising the Mexican government’s response to calls to investigate and bring those responsible to justice. When pressured about the most recent human rights review and submission of its 15% progress report on the Mérida Initiative, followed by the determination to approve continued funding in September shortly before the disappearances, a State Department spokesperson said the Department would not revisit the issue until sometime next year.

With growing concerns over the Mexican state’s connection to organized crime and human rights violations, it is no wonder Mexican and U.S. officials have been reluctant to release internal files with information on the San Fernando massacres and other atrocities. Maintaining secrecy is key to the continuation of the counter-drug initiatives that fuel migration, while at the same time lead to rampant abuses against migrants in Mexico’s territory—and have led to a frightening increase in the number of enforced disappearances. Uncovering the truth behind the San Fernando cases not only has the potential to challenge uninterrupted U.S. assistance for abusive security forces, but may also begin to lift the veil of secrecy behind the human rights atrocities in Mexico that are only increasing by the day.