The United States provided training to a troubled Mexican police unit -- several of whose members were charged in a January massacre of 19 people near the US-Mexico border -- including after the unit had been flagged for human rights violations by US officials, Mexican civilians and a prominent Mexican politician.
On January 22, authorities discovered the 19 bodies -- shot and killed and burned beyond recognition -- in a charred pickup truck in the municipality of Camargo, near the Texas border. Authorities have identified 16 of the victims through DNA analysis. Of these, 14 were Guatemalan migrants traveling to the United States. The other two were Mexican nationals.
On February 8, the Attorney General’s Office in Tamaulipas announced there was sufficient evidence against 12 members of the Tamaulipas special operations group known as the Grupo de Operaciones Especiales (GOPES) to charge them for the massacre.
The newly-formed GOPES unit was already under scrutiny for human rights abuses in the weeks before the migrant killings. On January 6, a group of at least 25 families in Ciudad Míer accused GOPES officers of having “attacked, robbed and intimidated” their community. As many as four people were allegedly disappeared and tortured by members of the force.
On January 13, Mexican congresswoman Olga Juliana Elizondo urged the Tamaulipas State Attorney General’s Office and the Secretary of Public Security to “investigate and, where appropriate, sanction the human rights violations committed by the GOPES.”
Yet as recently as 2020, GOPES officers received training from US authorities, according to GOPES commander Félix Arturo Rodríguez Rodríguez, who was quoted in multiple news reports. The US agency that provided the training and how it took place remains unclear, but the unit's officers had a history of training with US law enforcement.
The unit had been reconstituted from the Tamaulipas Center for Analysis, Information and Studies (Centro de Análisis, Información y Estudios de Tamaulipas -- CAIET) after its officers were accused of forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in 2019, and flagged by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for its alleged abuses.
What's more, three of the 12 GOPES officers arrested in connection to the January mass killing received basic skills and frontline supervisor training from the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), according to a State Department official.
The State Department official said the three officers who took part in the INL training did so in 2016 and 2017, prior to being assigned to the CAIET or GOPES. The training, according to the same official, was in compliance with the Leahy Law, sponsored by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, which prohibits funding for training foreign military units if there is evidence linking them to human rights violations.
The Texas Connection
The CAIET unit dates back to 2012, when it was created by the government of Tamaulipas. In January 2017, three months after Francisco García Cabeza de Vaca became state governor, the unit's mandate was modified and it became a specially vetted reaction force outfitted with high-caliber weapons to combat organized crime groups.
The unit reports directly to Cabeza de Vaca, who prosecutors have accused of links to drug trafficking groups, including the Gulf Cartel. He is currently under investigation by Mexico's Attorney General's Office for suspected money laundering.
Upon taking office, Cabeza de Vaca made a point to enhance US-Mexico cooperation on border security issues. As part of his second government report presented in September 2018, Cabeza de Vaca showed that between August 2017 and July 2018, nine Tamaulipas state police officers received technical training alongside Texas state officials, as well as members of various US security agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
It's unclear if the Tamaulipas officers were members of the CAIET.
But the record makes clear that CAIET unit officers recently trained with Texas law enforcement officials in Starr County, just across the border from Tamaulipas. In January 2019, Starr County Attorney Víctor Canales Jr. invited the CAIET agents to partake in an “unprecedented” exchange of ideas, tactics and information with the Starr County Special Crimes Unit in Rio Grande City. Video of the training shows both the local Texas law enforcement officials and Tamaulipas forces engaged side by side in tactical training, reenacting raids with high-powered weapons.
“This is the first time we’ve done a training exercise like this between the Tamaulipas state government and the District Attorney’s Office in Starr County,” Canales Jr. said in the video. Then-CAIET director Félix Arturo Rodríguez Rodríguez added that both the Texas and Tamaulipas officers were working toward the same goal: “to fight crime and prevent it from spreading.”
Such exercises at the state level are not subject to the same scrutiny that they would be at the federal level, Adam Isacson, the director of defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), told InSight Crime. The Leahy Law only applies to training, equipment or other assistance provided by the US State Department or Department of Defense to foreign security forces through security assistance programs that use funds appropriated through the annual Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill.
A Unit Renamed Amid Growing Alarm
In January 2019, not long after the training exercise in Texas, cellphone and surveillance videos captured several CAIET officers allegedly kidnapping as many as seven members of a family in Díaz Ordaz, just south of the US-Mexico border in Tamaulipas. In the videos -- circulated widely on social media and by the news giant Televisa -- the family members are seen being forced from their home and into a waiting vehicle.
That same month, the Phoenix field office of the DEA circulated a bulletin about the CAIET. The DEA note said that the group was carrying out operations in official vehicles, in which "they detain people, who in most cases are missing and even handed over to organized crime groups.”
The unit was again engulfed in controversy later that year. In early September 2019, CAIET members were accused of kidnapping and beating eight people in Nuevo Laredo, forcing them to dress up like hitmen, then executing them and placing guns in their hands to stage a shootout, according to witness testimonies gathered by the Human Rights Committee of Nuevo Laredo. There were no videos of any alleged confrontation with a criminal group.
Around this same time, the state government in Tamaulipas launched a new phase of a binational initiative with federal US authorities.
Governor Cabeza de Vaca traveled to Washington, DC -- days after the alleged extrajudicial killings -- to meet with John Cornyn, the US Senator for Texas. They discussed topics of mutual interest, including border security and cooperation between Tamaulipas and Texas authorities.
Then in October 2019, CBP re-launched an initiative originally formed in 2016 known as “Se Busca." The program -- which is still active today -- consists of the “dissemination, on both sides of the border, of a list of 10 priority objectives.” It also includes a tip line for the public to use, and CBP intelligence is shared with law enforcement officials in Tamaulipas.
A CBP spokesperson told InSight Crime in an email that the agency has "conducted several training exercises with the Tamaulipas state police to improve collaboration and enhance border security on both sides of the border." It's unclear if this included the special operations forces. The spokesperson also did not specify which law enforcement agencies in Tamaulipas CBP shares intelligence with as part of the "Se Busca" initiative.
In August 2020, amid the controversy surrounding the CAIET in Tamaulipas, Governor Cabeza de Vaca announced the formation of a reportedly new special operations group, known as the GOPES. However, the unit is composed of the same officers as the CAIET, including its director, Félix Arturo Rodríguez Rodríguez.
At the time of the group’s formation, Rodríguez was quoted in several local media outlets in Tamaulipas saying that the unit -- despite its record of human rights abuses -- received training from the United States. The local newspaper El Mañana reported that after being trained under the supervision of Mexico’s marines, the GOPES were then “trained by US government security experts in a two-month course.”
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It’s not clear what US agency provided this training or whether it took place at all. The State Department and Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs have no records of training either the GOPES or CAIET units of the Mexican security forces.
At the time of publication, Starr County Attorney Canales Jr. and the Tamaulipas Secretary of Public Security had not responded to InSight Crime's requests for comment.
The Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) told InSight Crime in an email that it did not have any information to provide. The Starr County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to multiple requests from InSight Crime for comment.
Congressman Henry Cuellar, who represents the 28th Congressional District of Texas that covers Starr County and Rio Grande City, where the CAIET training took place in 2019, told InSight Crime he “doesn’t know of any [GOPES] training … that was done in Starr County” last year.
In October 2020, Congressman Cuellar -- alongside US officials from CBP, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and State Department -- attended the grand opening of a new public security facility in Reynosa, where the GOPES has an operational base.
The congressman said that Tamaulipas Governor Cabeza de Vaca and US officials have been pushing for “more of a cooperative effort between US and Mexican law enforcement to enhance security on the border.”