These Migrants Made It Over the Border. Then They Were Killed in Phoenix.

Families ask if human traffickers were behind the killings of two men and a teen who were all from the same Mexican town.

Mar 3 2022, 7:06pm

Isauro Martínez left his impoverished hometown in rural Oaxaca in mid-February in search of a well-paid job in Wisconsin, but the young Indigenous Mexican never made it. Last week, his beaten body was found in a vacant lot in Phoenix along with those of two other undocumented migrants from the same town. 

Relatives of the victims believe that their human smugglers may have killed them.

“They were young and maybe they thought they could skip one of the payments for the journey,” Zaqueo Bautista, the cousin of one of the victims, told VICE World News. “I wonder, who else could it have been? You arrive safely when you pay on time—if not, you’ll die,” he said.


On March 2, Phoenix police arrested 21-year-old Juan Vargas in connection with the killings, but authorities didn’t provide any further details about how the men were killed or a possible motive, citing the ongoing investigation.

Murders of undocumented migrants in Mexico by organized crime are frequent, a constant reminder of the violence smuggling networks employ south of the border. But homicide cases involving migrants in U.S. border states are uncommon, and much less is known about abuses after migrants cross into the U.S.

Martínez, 21, left the Mixe community of Santo Domingo Tepuxtepec around Feb. 14 and during the journey north he joined a larger group, travelling with the second victim: Abimael Jiménez, 16, who had left two weeks earlier. Once they crossed the border, the two migrants made stops in California before arriving in Arizona, relatives said.

“We were constantly in touch and he texted me on Saturday [Feb. 19], saying he was happy that he was in the U.S.,” said Beatriz Martínez, Martínez’s younger sister, who also migrated to Wisconsin recently. “He told me he had left Los Angeles and was on his way to Phoenix.” 

After arriving in Arizona, the group split up and some decided to stay in the state while others left for Colorado. Martínez and Jiménez intended to make only a brief stop in Phoenix, Arizona’s capital city, before moving on to Wisconsin, where each had family waiting for them. 

The third victim, Herminio Pérez, 28, was in charge of driving the two young men, relatives said. A migrant himself, Pérez had left the same Indigenous town in Oaxaca a decade ago and worked as a raitero, someone hired by human smugglers, or by migrants themselves, to transport others within the U.S.


On Feb. 20, a day after Martínez last communicated with his sister, police received a report of an injured person in a vacant lot in west Phoenix. When officers reached the site, they found the three bodies with obvious signs of trauma.  

Undocumented migrants coming from Mexico and Central America often pay smugglers in installments, and it’s common for them to be held in safe houses along the route, including in U.S. border towns and cities, while they make the final payment to finish the journey. If migrants can’t make that payment, smugglers often resort to threats or violence against families at home or the migrants themselves.

For years, border counties in Arizona and Texas have recovered thousands of migrants’ remains from the desert and, except for the few discovered with gunshot wounds or signs of blunt trauma, the cause of death for the vast majority remains unknown.

“We don’t know of a single police investigation initiated to determine the cause of death. Those remains are recovered and it’s assumed that they died of exposure and dehydration, but there’s little effort to determine whether there was foul play,” said Roxanna Altholz, co-director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law.

Authorities in Arizona’s Pima County, which is on the border, have recovered the remains of more than 3,500 migrants since 2000. Some 2 percent were registered as homicides involving gunshots, according to the medical examiner’s office data.

But the young Oaxacan migrants' bodies were found in the more urban area of Phoenix, rather than the desert. Phoenix police do not maintain statistics on the citizenship status of homicide victims, Sgt. Philip Krynsky told VICE World News via email, making it harder to understand how frequent such killings are in the area.


“What makes this case an outlier might be the fact that these bodies can't be ignored because they were found in Phoenix and not in the desert,” said Altholz. “So they’re not as easy to put out of mind as someone who is abandoned or killed in the desert.”

Martínez, Jiménez, and Pérez came from a Mixe Indigenous town west of Oaxaca's capital, home to some 6,000 people. The population of Santo Domingo Tepuxtepec all live below the poverty line, according to Mexico’s Economy Ministry, and more than half of them live in extreme poverty on less than $65 a month. Young Mixe people often leave, following job offers to larger cities in Mexico, the border, or the U.S., where they settle in Oaxacan communities in California and Wisconsin.

When news of the killings reached Santo Domingo Tepuxtepec, the families gathered in grief and realized that the young men were distant cousins, in the way of such small towns. 

Mexico’s Foreign Ministry called on the Phoenix Police Department to carry out an “extensive and prompt investigation” and punish those responsible. For its part, the administration of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has made little progress investigating or prosecuting crimes committed against migrants in its own territory. In one recent case, authorities arrested 12 Tamaulipas police officers and have charged them with killing 16 Guatemalans and a Salvadoran just miles south of the U.S. border last year but have yet to explain their links to trafficking networks or provide a motive for the crime.

Mexicans accounted for more than a third of the 110,000 individuals apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in January, according to Customs and Border Protection data, and the total number of Mexican migrants apprehended in the past four months has increased by over 40 percent compared to the same period a year ago.

Martínez’s sister Beatriz doesn't know what’s going to happen with her brother’s body and who is going to help her mother back in Oaxaca. “After his death, I long to return, to be there with her,” she said by phone from Wisconsin. “But I can’t. To do what? In Mexico, there’s no future.”

Follow David Mora on Twitter.


mexico, oaxaca, migration, human smuggling, worldnews

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