One year after the brutal massacre of 16 Guatemalan migrants in northern Mexico, Guatemalan authorities and U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents arrested 10 people, most of them members of a politically-connected family that coordinated the trip.
The lead smuggler, David Coronado, was a 2019 mayoral candidate in the town of Comitancillo, Guatemala, where most of the victims were from. He and nine others are charged with human trafficking, money laundering, obstruction of justice and other crimes.
VICE World News was the first U.S. media outlet to connect Coronado to the massacre, allegedly carried out by Mexican police, just miles from the U.S. border. The killings included one longtime resident of the U.S. and a father of three who had been deported in the mass immigration raids across central Mississippi in 2019.
Photos of the raid show a major operation involving a dozen or more agents and at least one helicopter in Comitancillo, a small indigenous town nestled in the mountains a couple of hours south of Mexico. In addition to Coronado, authorities also arrested his daughter and nephew, and are seeking Coronado’s brother, Ramiro, who served as the town’s mayor from 2012 until 2016, and four others.
Authorities presented the raid as a victory against human trafficking. Most of those arrested are members of one of the most well-known and powerful families in Comitancillo. But it triggered indignation from some of the victims’ relatives and townspeople, who said the smugglers were doing their job and accused authorities of abandoning them after the massacre.
The reaction underscores the enormous disconnect between U.S. and Guatemalan authorities, and impoverished Guatemalans, about who is to blame when migrants die en route to the U.S. Human smugglers move consenting, paying clients from their countries of origin to the U.S, as opposed to human traffickers, who traffic people against their will.
“It’s because of the coyotes that our people have been able to get ahead,” said Santos López, the father of Dora Amelia López, 23, who was killed in the massacre. “How many years will Guatemala's president go to prison for not helping secure jobs for his people?”
López said family members of the victims have sought reparations from the Mexican government, but have yet to receive a response. He and others in the town also asked for visas to temporarily work in the U.S following the massacre. But those requests have gone nowhere, he said, leading many people from Comitancillo and the surrounding villages to keep paying smugglers to bring them to the U.S. Two-thirds of children in Comitancillo suffer malnutrition and many families survive thanks to remittances sent from family members in the U.S.
“There’s no jobs, that’s why people keep migrating,” said López, who is now supporting his daughter’s three children on the tiny income he earns as a part-time construction worker. “We can’t even steal anything because there is nowhere to steal from because there are no jobs.”
Prosecutors have charged 12 Mexican police officers in the Jan. 12, 2021 massacre, which took place just miles south of the U.S. border. Secret court hearings obtained by VICE World News painted a chilling picture: Prosecutors alleged that a convoy of police officers hunted down the group as they desperately tried to escape, fired more than 100 bullets at them, and then set them alight, burning sixteen Guatemalans, two Mexicans and one Salvadoran beyond recognition.
Mexican officials haven’t given a motive for the crime other than suggesting that police were working for a cartel that was locked in a rival battle with another criminal group for control of smuggling routes.
Three of the charged police officers received “basic skills and/or first-line supervisor training” through the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. VICE World News revealed that the regional coordinator of the state police, who was among those charged, took U.S.-funded classes in human rights and police ethics.
The Biden administration says that going after smuggling networks is one of its top priorities. In December, a tractor trailer crash in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas killed more than 50 Guatemalan migrants trying to reach the U.S. In the wake of that accident, U.S. officials pledged to “apply the full weight of the law” against people involved in “human trafficking and smuggling in all its manifestations.” Guatemalan lawmakers are also cracking down, passing legislation on Monday that increases the penalty for human smugglers to 10 to 30 years prison time, up from six to eight years.
The Coronados charged around $14,000 for the doomed trip to the U.S., about double the going-rate from 10 years ago. The high cost of the trip reflects the higher bribes needed to pay off officials and Mexican cartels that charge money for allowing migrants to pass through territory they control. The difficulty of getting through Border Patrol checkpoints once the migrants have crossed into the U.S. has also caused the cost of the trip to rise dramatically.
The Coronados asked for at least $2,000 up front and another payment when the group from Comitancillo reached the U.S. border. The victims were to pay the balance after reaching the U.S. Most of the victims were in their teens and early twenties, and it was their first time trying to reach the U.S.
VICE World News interviewed David Coronado by phone in the weeks after the massacre. He angrily denied that he or his son, Adan, worked as smugglers. Adan was among the victims killed in the massacre. “I’m a victim,” Coronado said, and then accused VICE of trying to extort him.
Guatemalan authorities said they found around $10,000 during the raid, as well as around $350,000 quetzales, roughly $45,000 dollars.
Most of those who were detained were transported to Guatemala City.
At least two of the men arrested had been picked up seven months earlier, in July, after authorities discovered $128,000 quetzales, roughly $16,000 dollars, in the glove compartment of their car. It’s unclear why they were released.
The smuggling ring is one of hundreds if not thousands operating across Central America. In fiscal year 2021, Customs and Border Protection reported nearly 300,000 encounters with Guatemalan trying to enter the U.S.