MEXICO CITY - Almost two dozen elite Mexican marines received training from the United States before—and in some cases after—they were accused of kidnapping civilians who were never seen again, according to documents and people familiar with the case.
The connection, which VICE World News is reporting for the first time, raises new questions about U.S. oversight of the hundreds of millions of dollars it invests in helping Mexican security forces fight the drug war.
Among the victims of the abductions that terrorized the sprawling border city of Nuevo Laredo: a 14-year-old boy snatched from a corner store; a man waiting for a tow truck after a car accident, only to vanish before the truck arrived; another man dragged from his home in the middle of the night.
Finally, in April, three years after the string of disappearances, Mexican authorities arrested 30 marines from the navy’s elite special-forces unit in connection with the abductions.
The navy has been on the front lines of Mexico’s drug war, and the U.S. has invested heavily to turn it into a lethal force against the country’s well-armed cartels. The returns have been considerable: The marines have spearheaded some of Mexico’s biggest drug seizures and twice captured drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, among other high-profile fugitives.
But now, some of the Mexican soldiers most trusted by the U.S. stand accused of committing atrocities. At least 22 of the 30 marines who are currently in a Mexican prison charged with forcibly disappearing four of the missing civilians in Nuevo Laredo received training from the U.S.
More marines could be arrested yet. Mexico’s attorney general’s office has opened a total of 34 investigations into the kidnapping and forced disappearance of 47 people during the unit’s six-month deployment to Nuevo Laredo in early 2018. The remains of 19 victims have been found, most bearing signs of torture. Twenty-five are still missing, and three were abducted and later freed or managed to escape.
In July, the Mexican government formally apologized to the victims’ families and promised to help them get justice.
“The problem is not sorting out a few bad apples, but rather you are dealing with institutions that have committed widespread crimes generally with impunity,” said Stephanie Brewer, director for Mexico and Migrant Rights at the Washington Office of Latin America, a human rights research and advocacy group. “We are talking about execution, torture, disappearances, arbitrary arrests.”
Courses in jungle operations and human rights
The 22 marines who are under arrest attended a total of 88 “training events” funded by the U.S. Department of Defense and the State Department between 2011 and April 2020, according to information obtained by VICE World News. The courses covered subjects like tactical driving, jungle operations, and human rights.
Thirteen of the accused marines participated in 17 U.S.-funded training events both during and after the time they allegedly kidnapped and murdered civilians in Nuevo Laredo. United Nations human rights officials condemned the abductions in May 2018 and Mexican authorities began investigating the unit a month later, but the trainings continued for another two years.
The courses lasted anywhere from a couple of weeks to several months. In recent years, the U.S. has added classes on human rights and police ethics amid growing concerns about the widespread abuses committed by Mexican security forces.
Some 88 percent of navy detainees from 2006-2016 reported being tortured or abused while in custody, according to a study by the World Justice Project based on figures from Mexico’s national statistics institute. The ratio for the army is nearly as high.
Forty percent of women arrested by the navy reported being raped, along with nearly 30 percent of those arrested by the army.
Mexico’s attorney general has not released the names of the marines who’ve been arrested in the Nuevo Laredo disappearances. VICE World News obtained the names from government documents and from people close to the case. Based on that, we were able to ascertain who received U.S. training.
“We have reports that the Mexican government failed to provide timely information about soldiers and police officers who were implicated in horrific crimes, and that as a result we provided training to people who should have been ineligible,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, told VICE World News. “That’s unacceptable, and it indicates a need to strengthen the vetting process.”
Under a law named for Leahy, the U.S. can’t provide funds to units of foreign security services accused of human rights violations.
Leahy and three other Democratic senators recently called on the Biden administration to suspend arms exports to units of the Mexican navy and police that are accused of human rights abuses. The senators highlighted concern over a proposal to sell $5.5 million worth of automatic rifles to the navy, “whose units are implicated in forced disappearances and torture.”
In a written statement provided to VICE World News, the U.S. State Department reiterated its commitment to the Leahy law, stating that any individual or unit implicated in a “gross violation of human rights” cannot receive U.S.-funded training or any other assistance.
The Department of Defense said it does not select which foreign units it trains, leaving that decision to the host country. Department spokesman Christian Mitchell said that U.S. law requires that "we work with military partners who follow the Law of Armed Conflict, subjugation to civilian control, and respect of human rights."
While the U.S. aims to professionalize Mexican soldiers through trainings, the strategy only goes so far, said Eric Olson, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and an expert on Mexico and Central America.
“At the end of the day, it’s not a guarantee,” Olson said. “Training foreign soldiers in any country that cannot hold its military accountable for human rights violations is risky and we shouldn't do it.”
But, Olson added, there is no chance the U.S. will cut off funding, because Mexico’s military forces and law enforcement agencies are viewed as being key to combating drug cartels. “What’s before us is whether to do no vetting or do some,” he said. “It’s an imperfect solution.”
A U.S. law enforcement source familiar with the Nuevo Laredo case, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, told VICE World News that the marines are still Mexico’s most trusted security force, despite the allegations of abuse.
“The only unit that effectively and honestly carries out missions for the U.S. government, even on a reduced basis, is SEMAR,” the source said, referring to the Mexican navy by its Spanish abbreviation. “The U.S. condones and supports their behavior six days a week and wants to complain on the seventh.”
The U.S. spends around $100 million annually on police and military aid in Mexico, said Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America. The Nuevo Laredo case is the second time this year that U.S.-trained security forces in Mexico have been charged with horrific crimes.
In February, three U.S.-trained Mexican police officers were among a dozen charged with killing 19 people just south of the U.S. border. Prosecutors allege the officers fired on two trucks transporting Guatemalan migrants and then set them alight, burning the victims beyond recognition. The Tamaulipas state police officers, who had attended courses through the U.S. State Department, including one on human rights, are now in prison awaiting trial.
The army battalion now under investigation for its alleged involvement in the 2014 disappearance of 43 teachers college students in the southern state of Guerrero also received U.S. funds and training before and after the attack, according to information provided by the Department of Defense to the National Security Archive and shared with VICE World News.
Gross violation of human rights
The Mexican government deployed the marines’ special forces unit in December 2017 across Tamaulipas, one of Mexico’s most dangerous states, to take on organized crime groups who have widespread control there. In Nuevo Laredo, a city of about half a million people that’s a major border crossing for truck cargo, the Cartel del Noreste is the dominant group.
The U.S. law enforcement source familiar with the Nuevo Laredo case said Mexican marines are confronting cartel members who wield powerful .50-caliber rifles capable of taking down helicopters. “Handcuffs don’t come into that discussion. They’re not police officers—that’s what’s missing from the conversation,” the source said.
As the number of kidnappings rose in Nuevo Laredo in the early months of 2018, Mexican authorities resisted opening an investigation into their prized navy unit, despite reports from witnesses who repeatedly described the victims being snatched by men in military attire.
That is what happened to Jorge Antonio Hernández Domínguez in May.
The Texas-born 18-year-old had been doing construction work at his family’s house in Nuevo Laredo when he and a worker headed out to a convenience store at around 9 p.m.
A convoy of trucks stopped them en route. Armed men in military uniforms dragged the two men from their car and loaded them into the trucks, according to a report by Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights detailing the abductions. The kidnappers threatened neighbors and took their cellphones away so they wouldn’t record what was going on.
Hernández and the worker were never heard from again.
By that point in 2018, the Human Rights Commission was concerned, and its representatives entered the navy’s operational bases in Nuevo Laredo and the neighboring state of Nuevo León on May 16 to look for the missing civilians.
Chillingly, seven more people were abducted and disappeared at the hands of the marines’ special forces unit over the next week, according to witnesses.
The unit was finally recalled to Mexico City on June 1, 2018, two days after the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights publicly denounced the disappearances in Nuevo Laredo and criticized Mexican authorities for failing to properly investigate.
It would take another two years for Mexico’s attorney general’s office to present evidence against members of the special forces unit, in the case of a 23-year-old man who went missing after marines allegedly crashed into his car. The prosecutor’s office said the marines and their commanders hid the car the victim was traveling in and altered the official logs of their activities.
Among the navy officers now in custody is one of the commanders who oversaw the special forces unit in Nuevo Laredo during its 2018 deployment. His arrest was first reported by Animal Politico.
Only one of the other arrested marines has been flagged by the State Department under the Leahy law for suspicion of human rights abuses, according to information obtained by VICE World News. That happened in February 2021, nearly three years after he was deployed in Nuevo Laredo.
The 30 marines who face charges of forcibly disappearing people in federal court haven’t yet pleaded guilty or innocent.
In a remarkable statement, Mexico’s Human Rights Commission recommended in its 2020 report that navy commanders order personnel to stop “carrying out arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances,” in a tacit acknowledgement that the navy had allowed the abuses to take place.
The commission also called for an investigation into Marco Antonio Ortega Siu, the then-commander of the special forces unit, for possibly concealing information and lying in reports to investigative authorities. Ortega Siu, who played a critical role in the recapture of “El Chapo” Guzmán in 2016, hasn't been arrested in connection with the disappearances.
“The government didn’t do anything to protect its citizens. Not the municipal government, the state government, nor the federal government,” said Raymundo Ramos, president of the Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee, an NGO that works closely with the victims’ families. “To this day, they are trying to protect officials like Siu and the chain of command.”
“It’s time the world knows”
Congress has raised the alarm about U.S. training of Mexican soldiers and officers. In July, the House Congressional Appropriations Committee asked the State Department for a detailed assessment of its training program in northern Mexico, citing the alleged involvement of “United States–trained Mexican police agents” in the January massacre of the Guatemalan migrants.
But just a month later, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, along with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, honored the commander of the same elite state police unit for his “exceptional” contributions to joint U.S.-Mexico operations.
In Mexico, the government is taking the first halting steps toward acknowledging the abuse. At a ceremony with the victims’ families in July, Mexico’s undersecretary for human rights, Alejandro Encinas, called on the judiciary to “fulfill its responsibility” to guarantee justice for the victims.
Admiral Ramiro Lobato Comacho, who oversees human rights compliance in the Navy ministry, said words alone can’t “repay the damage suffered by the victims,” adding that “the path toward truth offers dignity, comfort, attention, and support” for victims.
Relatives of the victims say it’s not enough.
Prosecutors still haven’t provided them information about the investigation’s progress, the evidence that has been collected, or if and when more marines will be charged, they say.
Jessica Molina, an American citizen whose husband was abducted from their house and is still missing, spoke publicly following the government’s apology.
“It’s been three years since this nightmare started,” Molina said. “It’s time that the world knows what happened in Nuevo Laredo at the hands of the navy’s special operations unit.”
Keegan Hamilton contributed to this story.