A dozen Mexican police officers were arrested for allegedly killing 19 people, including Guatemalan migrants, whose bodies were found shot and burned near the US border in late January.
Tamaulipas state attorney general Irving Barrios Mojica said the 12 officers were in custody and face charges of homicide, abuse of authority and false statements.
The killings revived memories of the gruesome massacre of 72 migrants in 2010 near the town of San Fernando in the same gang-ridden state. But those murders were committed by a drug cartel, while many people are likely to find it more shocking that the January 22 killings were allegedly carried out by the police.
The attorney general did not say what motive the officers might have had, although corrupt local and state police in Mexico were often in the pay of drug cartels.
Cartels in Mexico often accuse migrant smugglers of crossing their territory and kidnap or kill migrants whose smugglers have not paid or paid a rival gang.
The bodies were found piled up in a charred pickup truck in Camargo, across the Rio Grande from Texas, in an area that has been ruined for years by turf battles between the remnants of the Gulf cartel and the old Los Zetas cartel.
Authorities have said four of the dead have been identified so far: two Guatemalans and two Mexicans. Their names have not been released by authorities, but relatives of one of the dead Mexicans said he worked as an immigrant smuggler.
Of the 19 corpses examined by the experts, 16 were male, one female and the other two were so burned that their gender had not yet been determined.
The forensic results confirmed the fears of families from a rural indigenous farming community in Guatemala who said they lost contact with 13 migrants while traveling to the United States.
The truck containing the bodies had 113 gunshot wounds, but authorities were confused by the fact that almost no spent shell casings were found at the scene.
Initially, that led investigators to speculate that the shootings may have taken place elsewhere and that the truck was driven to the location where it caught fire.
But Barrios Mojica said the state troopers accused of the murders knew their bullet casings could give them away, so they likely picked them up.
Describing the hours leading up to the killings, Barrios Mojica said the truck carrying the victims was apparently part of a larger convoy of vehicles transporting migrants to the US border. He said the trucks were also carrying armed men to provide protection.
Barrios Mojica did not rule out that the motive for the murders could have been a dispute between drug gangs fighting for territory and the right to accuse migrant smugglers for passing through “their” territory.
The massacre is the latest chapter in Tamaulipas’ history of police corruption. Most towns and cities in the state saw their municipal police forces disbanded years ago, because officers were often in the pay of the cartels. A more professional state police force was supposed to be the answer, a belief that collapsed with the arrests announced Tuesday.
A repeat of the 2010 massacre has long been one of the Mexican government’s worst nightmares.
In August 2010, members of the Los Zetas cartel stopped two trailers that were transporting dozens of migrants, mostly Central Americans, and took them to a ranch in the Tamaulipas city of San Fernando. After the migrants refused to work for the cartel, they were blindfolded, tied to the ground and shot dead.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism