Twelve Mexican police officers have been charged in the January 22 massacre in Tamaulipas, Mexico. Three of the officers received training through a U.S. State Department program.
Twelve Mexican police officers have been charged in the January 22 massacre in Tamaulipas, Mexico. Three of the officers received training through a U.S. State Department program. Photo: Tamaulipas State Prosecutor's Office / Sean Wehrli, VICE World News.

US-Trained Cops in Mexico Killed Migrants, Set Them on Fire, Say Prosecutors

New evidence obtained by VICE World News paints a chilling picture of the killing of 19 migrants near the U.S border in January.
August 4, 2021, 2:31pm

MEXICO CITY — Two trucks carrying migrants sped through dusty roads a few miles south of the U.S. border as four armored police cars gave chase. A man called his wife from one of the trucks: The police are shooting at us, he told her.

By the time the hunt was over, Mexican police officers would fire more than 100 bullets at the trucks and set them on fire, leaving 16 Guatemalans, two Mexicans, and one Salvadoran burned beyond recognition, according to Mexican prosecutors. 

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Seven months later, the Jan. 22 massacre remains shrouded in mystery. VICE World News obtained exclusive footage of pre-trial hearings against the 12 officers charged in the killings, which a judge ordered kept secret because of the sensitive nature of the case. The evidence presented by prosecutors paints a chilling picture: Migrants desperately trying to escape as a convoy of police officers hunted them down, fired a barrage of bullets, and then set them alight. 

VICE is also revealing new details about the extent of U.S. training received by several of the accused officers, casting doubt on billion-dollar American efforts to clean up Mexican security agencies with long histories of corruption. 

Prosecutors have charged the 12 officers with aggravated murder, abuse of power, and obstruction of justice. The officers have yet to plead innocent or guilty, and they initially claimed they came upon the crime scene after the massacre. 

An array of evidence proved the officers were lying, prosecutors said. Geolocating tools placed one of the police vehicles at the scene of the massacre as it was happening, they alleged, and cellphone data proved the officers were physically there. They also introduced eyewitness testimony and ballistic evidence showing the officers’ guns had been fired. 

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One of the Guatemalan migrants killed in the January 22 massacre was buried in Comitancillo, Guatemala on March 13. Credit. Jika González for VICE World News.

“Witnesses saw police officers chasing civilians,” a Tamaulipas state prosecutor told the judge. “They also saw the officers in armored cars fire their weapons. Later, they saw the two pickups on fire, heard two explosions, and saw smoke billowing through the bushes. And not just one witness saw this, not just two witnesses, but three.”

One of the witnesses testified that over the course of 20 minutes, he saw shots being fired from “four blue monster trucks”—armored police vehicles—“all with a person on top, hooded and dressed in black” as they pursued the vehicles carrying the migrants. 

Another witness said that after seeing explosions, a short, stocky woman dressed in dark clothes arrived at their door and asked if anyone had tried to hide inside. The witness told the woman no, and then hid in the house. Prosecutors suggested that the woman is defendant Mayra Elizabeth Vásquez Santillana, the regional police commander who fits the witness’s description.

A Mexican coyote hired by the Guatemalans to smuggle them across the border contacted his family the morning of the massacre, according to prosecutors. He called his cousin at 8 a.m. saying the group was near the U.S. border and that the situation “was very heated and bad because there were lots of cops.”

That account of events matches with what one of the victims—a Guatemalan woman — texted her father the morning of the massacre. She told him the group had left the highway because there was so much law enforcement, and they were waiting for the road to clear. 

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The Mexican coyote made another call, this time to his wife, between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m., prosecutors said. “He told her police were firing at them.” It was the last time they spoke and the last call registered from the coyote’s phone. 

None of the witnesses personally testified in court, and VICE World News was unable to reach them to confirm their version of events. 

All 19 victims suffered extensive fourth-degree burns, some on 100 percent of their body, according to autopsy reports presented by the prosecution. The reports left open the possibility that several of the victims died as a result of their burns, not of bullet wounds.  

Most of the victims were in their teens and early twenties, and came from indigenous towns in Guatemala’s western highlands. One of them, Edgar López, had lived most of his life in the U.S. until his arrest and deportation following a massive 2019 immigration raid at chicken plants across Mississippi. He was trying to make his way back to his family. 

Relatives of the migrants who’d been traveling with them a day earlier narrowly escaped the attack. Five people, including minors, entered the U.S. in the days following the massacre, according to two U.S. government sources. They had been traveling together from Guatemala. But the morning of the attack, the surviving migrants left the safe house in a different vehicle as the victims. They don’t appear to have been at the scene of the shootout and haven’t been granted witness protection by the U.S.  

The massacre has raised concerns for members of Congress in Washington because of its U.S. connections. Most of the officers involved in the mass killing belonged to a Tamaulipas special forces unit whose members have received training by the U.S. In recent years, the unit has been accused of human rights abuses including kidnappings, forced disappearances, and torture.  

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The U.S. State Department trained three of the 12 police officers charged in the massacre through a program aimed at fortifying and modernizing Mexico’s police force and justice system.

Vásquez, the regional coordinator of the state police who allegedly went door-to-door trying to flush out survivors, took weekslong classes on human rights and police ethics in 2016 and 2017. The State Department designed the courses to make up for the lack of training in Mexican police academies. 

Another defendant took classes aimed at providing leadership skills to Mexican police. 

And in a separate investigation related to the massacre, nine federal immigration agents and local policemen were arrested for evidence tampering.

In July, the House Congressional Appropriations Committee wrote a report noting its concern about “United States–trained Mexican police agents’ involvement” in the killings and asked the State Department for a detailed assessment of its training program in Northern Mexico.

The report added that the “Committee is concerned with the deteriorated human rights conditions at the border of the United States and Mexico due to migrant flows and is troubled by reports that agents in Mexico’s National Migration Agency have committed human rights violations and have not been held accountable.” 

Deported to Death

Accountability has been an elusive goal in Mexico, where there’s a long history of shoddy criminal investigations and false official accounts. Most notoriously, the government’s “historical truth” regarding the disappearance in 2014 of 43 students in the state of Guerrero, which was found to be demonstrably false.

Lawyers for the 12 officers accused in the January massacre of the Guatemalan migrants suggested their clients were victims of an ill-fated rush for justice, and had been framed.  

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In court, defense attorney Eduardo Govea claimed the eyewitnesses were illiterate and questioned what he saw as an unusually fast turnaround on the autopsies. He also alleged that prosecutors obtained some of the evidence, like the officers’ cellphone data, without court orders — a claim the judge dismissed. Even if the officers’ guns had been used, Govea added, investigators hadn’t proven who fired them. 

“We still don’t know who fired the guns, who drove the vehicles, or who the eyewitnesses were,” Govea argued.

Some of the accused officers took the stand to point the finger at investigators. Vásquez, the regional commander of the state police, tearfully testified that investigators bullied her and never let on that she was a suspect. 

When the officers’ accounts of the massacre didn’t match, “the investigator would change my testimony so it would match with the rest of my colleagues,” Vásquez said. 

But the judge ruled that there was enough evidence to indict the officers and granted the prosecution and defense until August 8 to complete their investigation. 

Big questions remain. Prosecutors said in court that at least 20 officers were chasing the migrants, but only 12 were arrested. The Tamaulipas prosecutor's office declined to comment on whether the additional officers are suspects or facing arrest warrants. 

And prosecutors have yet to flesh out a motive for the crime. The only reference came from the state’s top prosecutor just days after the massacre. He suggested that police were working for a cartel that was locked in a rival battle with another criminal group for control of smuggling routes in the region. 

In the months since the massacre, the state governor of Tamaulipas has been ordered arrested for alleged ties to organized crime—accusations he denies.

Mexican authorities have kept the victims’ families in the dark regarding the investigation, said Ángel Escalante, an attorney representing family members of the Guatemalan victims. 

“When we ask about it, all they say is, ‘We have 12 officers in custody,’” Escalante said. “Justice will be served when they reveal how authorities are complicit in smuggling networks, how they profit off of migrants, and who ordered the massacre—not just by prosecuting and sentencing the 12 officers.”