The embattled governor of Tamaulipas in northern Mexico is touting the timely arrests of those allegedly responsible for a grizzly massacre in Reynosa but doubts remain as to who may truly be behind the killings.
“Federal, state and municipal governments must send a clear message that there is not, nor will there be, impunity for those who commit criminal acts or violence,” Tamaulipas Governor Francisco García Cabeza de Vaca said June 28.
But clarity has hardly been forthcoming. The governor's comments came a little more than a week after armed gunmen attacked and killed 19 people on June 19 in Reynosa, the US-Mexico border city in northern Tamaulipas state. Authorities have now arrested 13 people alleged to be the intellectual and material authors of the crime, including a “high-profile criminal,” who Governor Cabeza de Vaca said was a “priority” for prosecutors.
One individual, known as “La Vaca,” was identified by authorities as being the alleged boss for the Gulf Cartel in Rio Bravo, a town on Tamaulipas' border with the United States. In 2019, a reward of two million pesos (around $100,000) was set for information leading to his capture.
But this was not the only arrest. Since the killings, security forces have arrested 25 other people, freed 119 kidnapping victims and secured weapons and drugs.
Those actions were led by a controversial special operations group known as the Grupo de Operaciones Especiales (GOPES), which reports directly to the governor. Some of its members were tied to the brutal January 2021 massacre of 19 people near the US-Mexico border.
InSight Crime Analysis
The governor sought to show his state's quick response to the Reynosa massacre but he left many unanswered questions in a state infamous for its high levels of impunity.
Firstly, there are real doubts as to whether the GOPES unit can be trusted to lead such a sensitive, high-profile response. Some of its officers - who have received training in the United States - have been accused of everything from torturing and disappearing people, kidnapping entire families and allegedly handing over detainees to criminal groups in Tamaulipas.
Controversy has also surrounded the arrests connected to the Reynosa massacre. Relatives of two of the men arrested allege that their relatives were actually kidnapping victims - taken months before the killings occurred - and were beaten and falsely implicated in the crime by the GOPES.
“They made him shoot [a gun]. They put his hands on the wheel because he supposedly brought the car. … They had put a bag over his head,” one sister, who saw her brother while he was detained, told El Universal. Tamaulipas state Attorney General Irving Barrios told the newspaper he would look into the charges.
Beyond these serious allegations, neither the GOPES nor any other part of the Tamaulipas state security and justice systems has a proven track record of successfully prosecuting crimes. The state’s impunity rate stood at around 96 percent in 2019, marginally down from 99.9 percent the year before, according to a 2020 report from the think-tank México Evalúa.
Finally, the arrests come as Governor Cabeza de Vaca is fighting off allegations that he is also connected to organized crime. Days after the massacre, lawmakers reformed the state constitution to preserve the governor’s immunity and shield him from federal prosecution for alleged participation in organized crime, money laundering and tax evasion.
Since at least 2016, Cabeza de Vaca has faced accusations that he has links to the Gulf Cartel, the very group supposedly connected to the Reynosa massacre.