A dozen police officers have been implicated in the massacre of 19 people along the US-Mexico border at the end of January, underscoring the systematic violence directed at those most vulnerable in areas where organized crime groups operate.
Tamaulipas state Attorney General Irving Barrios announced in a February 2 press conference that at least 12 state police officers — *all of whom belong to an elite special operations group (GOPES), of which three were trained and vetted by the United States before joining the group — were arrested for allegedly participating in the massacre in the Camargo municipality.
The revelation pushes back against previous reports that witnesses saw a commando of Northeast Cartel gunmen — a Zetas splinter group — murder the individuals in a local home before abandoning their bodies near the Tamaulipas-Nuevo León border.
Attorney General Barrios did not make clear the potential motive or what involvement the detained officers had in the gruesome crime, whether it was directly shooting the victims or helping others to do so. The officers are facing criminal charges of homicide, abuse of authority and falsifying official reports, according to Attorney General Barrios.
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Authorities discovered the victims on January 22 in two burnt out vehicles along the US-Mexico border. They had been shot and killed before their remains were burned and left behind. Thus far, officials have only been able to identify four victims, two Mexicans and two Guatemalan migrants — Élfego Roliberto Miranda Díaz and Marvin Alberto Tomás López — who were traveling through the country en route to the United States. Some families in Guatemala fear there are more migrants among those murdered.
Tamaulipas Governor Francisco Cabeza de Vaca condemned the attack and said “there will not be impunity.” However, the state has one of the highest impunity rates in the entire country, according to the think tank México Evalúa.
This is not the first time that migrants have encountered extreme violence in Tamaulipas. In 2010, 72 primarily Central and South American migrants were shot in the head and left at a ranch owned by the feared Zetas, in what has become known as the San Fernando Massacre. A year later, another massacre occurred in which 193 people were removed from buses, killed and buried in mass graves.
Testimony collected by local human rights groups in the border region has in the past implicated government officials including municipal police forces, migration authorities and the Navy (Secretaría de Marina — SEMAR) in violent crimes committed against local citizens and migrants.
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The fact that a number of the arrested officers implicated in the killing — and attempted cover up — are part of an elite special operations unit and were trained and vetted by the United States is deeply troubling.
The Special Operations Group (GOPES) is a SWAT-style reaction force that was formed in mid-2020 to carry out high-profile security operations against organized crime groups. It replaced the Tamaulipas Center for Analysis, Information and Studies (Centro de Análisis, Información y Estudios de Tamaulipas — CAIET).
The CAIET had been accused of its own share of serious abuses as well. In September 2019, members of the force were implicated in kidnapping and beating eight individuals, forcing them to dress up like sicarios, then executing them and placing guns in their hands to stage a shootout.
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Shortly after that, Governor Cabeza de Vaca — himself accused of links to drug trafficking and currently under investigation for suspected drug money laundering — met with US officials to discuss further security cooperation to target organized crime groups operating on the US-Mexico border.
Other Mexican units vetted by US agencies have also come under fire. The federal police’s Sensitive Investigative Unit (SIU), for example, has been implicated in passing on sensitive information to drug trafficking groups and protecting their members in exchange for bribes. Former SIU Commander Iván Reyes Arzate was arrested in April 2017 and later charged with drug conspiracy and leaking confidential intelligence.
The latest killings underscore just how much of a bilateral issue corruption and insecurity are in the border regions. However, this case comes at a time when US-Mexico relations are on particularly rocky footing.
*This article was updated to clarify information about the GOPES officers arrested.