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Mexican police were involved in massacre that killed Guatemalan migrants, prosecutors say

On Tuesday night, Irving Barrios Mojica, the attorney general of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, said that an investigation had proved that “at least 12 elements of the state police participated in the events of January 22.”

That alarming finding comes as President Biden attempts to reshape U.S. immigration policy so that it is “more fair, orderly and humane,” he said on Tuesday. The massacre in Camargo underscores not only the risks that migrants must now endure to enter the United States, but the destabilizing role that Mexico’s security forces sometimes plays along the border.

At the Trump administration’s behest, Mexico mobilized its army and police to deter migration, despite objections from human rights groups. The police’s participation in last month’s massacre will force Biden to reckon with the risks of continuing that policy.

The U.S. border is currently closed to migrants — including asylum seekers — because of a pandemic-era policy, which Biden has so far upheld. That means the only way for most migrants to enter the United States is to pay a smuggler, as the Guatemalans did, entrusting their fate to a criminal group.

The 12 officers have been detained on homicide charges. It remains unclear why the police would kill the migrants, or if the Guatemalans were mistakenly targeted. Camargo is near a stretch of northern Mexico that is contested by two major criminal organizations, the Zeta and Gulf cartels. It is also a major smuggling point for drugs and migrants.

Only two of the Guatemalan victims have been identified, but Guatemalan officials say at least 11 more of the victims were Guatemalan. Photos of the scene showed a pile of charred, skeletal human remains in the back of a pickup.

The massacre has already emerged as a wedge between Mexico and Guatemala.

“The Government of the Republic of Guatemala expresses its absolute rejection of the atrocities committed in the Tamaulipas massacre and expresses its deepest condolences to the families of the victims,” the Guatemalan government said in a statement Tuesday night.

Mojica said that on the day of the attack, a number of vehicles passed through the area transporting migrants to the United States. One of those vehicles, he said, “carried armed individuals who provided protection for the group.”

The Guatemalan migrants were mostly young men and women in their 20s trying to escape the grinding poverty of Comitancillo, a rural town, located in one of the poorest regions in Latin America. At least one of the victims, according to relatives, was a man who had been deported from the United States and was trying to return to his wife and child in Mississippi.

In a local news report from Guatemala, Olga Perez, one of the mothers of the victims wept describing what had happened.

“When she left she was normal, and when she when she returns she will be completely charred,” she said.

Mario Gálvez, a lawmaker from San Marcos where Comitancillo is located, wrote on Facebook that 13 of the victims were from his department. He issued a condolence letter with their names.

“I have already contacted the authorities of the Guatemalan foreign ministry to give all the necessary attention to families to support the repatriation of the bodies of these countrymen, victims of insecurity, in search of their dreams,” he wrote.

Edgar López y López was attempting to return to Jackson, Mississippi where he had lived for 26 years, his family members told local reporters. They were now trying to raise money to pay for the repatriation of his body.

Another of the suspected victims was Rivaldo Jimenez Ramirez. His uncle told local reporters through tears: “People recognized him for the good kid that he was — obedient and hard-working.”

In 2010, 72 migrants were massacred in San Fernando, another part of Tamaulipas state. Members of the Zetas cartel were later linked to the attack. Some in Mexico have drawn a parallel between the two massacres, both just miles from the U.S. border, in one of the most dangerous stretches of the Western Hemisphere. But Mexican officials played down the similarities.

“This is not a San Fernando because we are advancing in the investigation,” said Olga Sánchez Cordero, the national secretary of government, said last week. “There won’t be impunity.”

But now that the police have been accused of being involved in the massacre, Mexico will once again have to reckon with profound questions about the security forces’ role in violence and human rights abuses.

Mexican authorities said that evidence at the crime scene appeared to have been manipulated. One of the trucks, for example, was riddled with bullet holes, but investigators didn’t locate any shell casings nearby.

In 2019, the Trump administration pressured Mexico into using its military and police to deter migration. It immediately drew critics.

“Given the deplorable human rights record of Mexican security forces in recent years — and especially the military — it’s predictable that the deployment will result in serious abuses,” wrote Daniel Wilkinson at Human Rights Watch at the time.

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