MEXICO CITY — Santos López heard from his daughter almost daily, up until the day she and at least a dozen other young Guatemalans nearly reached the U.S. border.
“There’s a lot of immigration officers, so we left the highway,” López’s 23-year-old daughter Dora told him Friday, he relayed to VICE World News. “We’re waiting for it to get cleared so we can pass.
“I’m alright. I’ll text once we’re out.”
But she never did.
A day later, the prosecutor’s office in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, from where López’s daughter last called, said police found 19 bodies, shot and then incinerated in a burned-out pickup truck in the town of Santa Anita. On Sunday, officials from San Marcos, Guatemala said 13 people from there had been murdered in northern Mexico, including López’s daughter.
"I profoundly lament the tragic death of our migrant compatriots from San Marcos that occurred in Tamaulipas, Mexico," Luis Carlos Velásquez, governor of San Marcos, wrote in a press release.
The massacre is the latest atrocity in recent years in Northern Mexico, just miles from the U.S. border. Occurring just days after President Biden takes office, it is a reminder of the violence and impunity that dominates the countries’ shared border. It also underscores the grave dangers facing migrants trying to reach the U.S. and the consequences of deterrent policies that push them to take riskier routes to avoid detection.
Human rights activists cautioned that it’s impossible to say with certainty who the victims are without forensic evidence. In the past, Mexico has sent family members of massacre victims the remains of the wrong person. The immediate family members of the missing Guatemalans gathered at the country’s foreign ministry on Monday and had their DNA swabbed to be compared with the remains discovered.
But they had little doubt about the identities of the incinerated bodies. “The coyote [people smuggler] that transported them… told us that yes, it’s them that were killed,” Olga Pérez, the mother of Santa Cristina García Pérez told a local news outlet. In her arms she carried her daughter, who has a cleft lip. She said Santa wanted to get to the U.S. so she could find work and pay for surgery for her baby sister.
“Right now, I just ask the authorities to bring me the body of my daughter, even if it’s just ashes,” she said. “I want to bury my daughter.”
The massacre directly contradicts Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s claims that the country has shed its violent past. He’s said that “migrants were kidnapped and disappeared” before he took office and, in September, he proclaimed that under his administration “there’s no torture, disappearances and massacres anymore.”
The very claim is not only farcical, but it begets impunity by denying the dangers migrants face, said Rubén Figueroa, an activist with the migrants’ rights group Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano. “These massacres are continuous. It’s an ongoing massacre. Sometimes they are big like this one. Sometimes it’s just two of three people that are assassinated, disappeared.”
“We are very clear that when you have impunity you are sending a message that violence is tolerated,” said Ana Lorena Delgadillo, executive director of the Foundation for Justice and Democratic Rule of Law in Mexico City, which has represented family members of victims in previous massacres.
Reaching the U.S. has become increasingly harder as Mexico and Guatemala have militarized their borders and cracked down on migrants traveling in mass caravans. The idea behind these caravans is that there is safety in numbers. Earlier this month, Guatemalan forces violently pushed back thousands of Hondurans seeking to traverse the country in hopes of reaching the U.S.
Family members of the missing Guatemalans said their loved ones — most of them in their late teens and early 20s — started heading North on January 12, departing from Comitancillo, Tuilelen, and Sipacapa, small towns and villages just south of the border with Mexico. It’s an indigenous area with high levels of poverty and a long history of people migrating to the U.S. Most speak Mam — Spanish is their second language.
“We paid the coyote $2,100 upfront,” Florinda Isidro, the mother of Robelson Tomás, a 15-year-old boy that travelled with the group, told local news. “We didn’t have more to give him. We don’t have money, there are no jobs, we don’t even have a house, and (my son) was embarrassed about having to eat in a place with no roof.”
Guatemala has one of the most developed smuggling networks in Central America. Depending on how much migrants pay — usually between $6,000 and $10,000, of which half is paid upfront — they are transported in everything from commercial buses to the back of trailers.
One rule prevails: All migrants crossing Northern Mexico have to pay off the cartels that control the territory they are passing through. Without paying, they risk being kidnapped or killed. The criminal syndicates have widespread control of the border, crucial for moving illegal drugs into the United States, and they keep tabs on everyone coming and going.
The state prosecutor in Tamaulipas, where the bodies were found, said it’s investigating whether the victims were killed in a neighboring state and later dumped and burned, a scenario it considers plausible because officials found no bullet shells in the area surrounding the murder scene.
But homicide investigations in Mexico have a long history of going nowhere, in part because of police corruption. A coyote from San Marcos — the same department as the missing Guatemalans — told VICE World News that he suspects the attack was because the group’s smuggler didn’t pay off the cartel who controlled the territory ahead of time.
Figueroa, the migrant activist, said the violent nature of the attack suggests that they ventured into territory disputed by rival cartels. “For the migrants, it’s practically walking through a minefield. Because at any moment they can be trapped and killed.”
In 2010, 72 migrants trying to reach the U.S. were hauled from buses and murdered. Their bodies were found in an empty warehouse in the rural municipality of San Fernando, also in the northern border state of Tamaulipas. The Mexican attorney general’s office later said police helped “intercept” the murdered migrants.
The following year, 193 bodies, including those of migrants, were pulled out of mass graves found in the same town. In 2012, 49 people were found decapitated and dismembered miles from the U.S. border. In 2019, at least 19 men believed to be traveling from Central America were forcibly pulled off a bus in broad daylight just miles from the U.S. border.
Massacres like this will continue without a fundamental shift in Mexico’s justice system and a transnational approach to investigating them, activists said.
“They are poor. They live in other countries. Who is going to fight for their rights?” said Delgadillo, the human rights attorney. “They are the easiest targets and the government doesn’t care.”