MEXICO CITY, Mexico — The men and women were lined up, hands and feet bound, forced to kneel against the wall on an isolated farm in northern Mexico, near the border with the United States.
One by one, the drug traffickers who had kidnapped them shot the 72 Central and South Americans in the head, one after another slumping in death. It was Aug. 25. There were 14 women among the dead.
One of two confirmed survivors, Luis Lala Pomavilla, was quoted in the press as saying, “I only remember hearing the wailings and pleas of some people there, and then the gun shots.”
Journalists in the area said this week that they have learned that the migrants were in the hands of a small band of human traffickers who had not paid off the Zeta organized crime group, which controls the region, and the Zetas killed the migrants to make a point.
The largest slaughter in nearly four years of Mexico's raging drug wars shocked the public and became an international incident. It underscored the brutal and hypocritical way immigrants are treated here even as the Mexican government protests the treatment of its citizens in the United States, most recently in harsh attacks against Arizona's immigration law.
In the weeks since, Mexico's top immigration official was fired, seven men allegedly belonging to the Zeta cartel were arrested and President Felipe Calderon struggled to repair severe damage to Mexico's moral authority in the region.
But the prospects for real reform in the handling of the many tens of thousands of migrants who pass through Mexico annually, almost always in search of work in the United States, remained elusive. Advocates have long complained of the abusive treatment, kidnapping, rape, shakedowns and even murder that many immigrants face. They questioned whether the government here was making an honest effort to control the brutality.
And that is the irony. Mexico is very quick to raise the issue of how Mexicans are treated in the United States, which is the natural reflex of any government. But traveling through Mexico to the United States are targets the Mexican government often ignores. Or worse, they are targets of Mexican police and immigration officials working with organized crime gangs, according to federal government officials.
The head of Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, Jose Luis Soberanes Fernandez, writing about migrants, warned in June 2009 that there was “evident disinterest on the part of the authorities to prevent the crime, protect the victims and to find a way to repair the damages to them or to insure the crimes were not repeated.” He cautioned that the infiltration of organized crime into law enforcement agencies was creating an environment of impunity.
The Human Rights Commission released a study that estimated that in one six-month period nearly 10,000 migrants had been kidnapped for ransom and usually treated with great cruelty while being held. Taken on a yearly basis, that is close to 20 percent of the 52,655 non-Mexicans that the U.S. Border Patrol said it detained last year on the southern border. Though how many make the trip and get into the U.S. is not known.
The Human Rights Commission study said the ransoms collected from family members in the U.S. or in the captives' home countries were about $25 million. It said victims are often afraid to complain because they believe the police are involved or because they fear being deported.
In the long trip from Mexico’s southern border to the border with the United States, it may be local, state or federal officers who shake down the migrants, or turn them over to organized crime gangs.
From the time the migrants cross into Mexico on large inflated inner tubes on the Suchiate River on the border with Guatemala, or walk the paths around the border posts in other crossings trying to evade guards, they are almost always marked as foreigners.
Their clothes, their accents, their aura of fear, the routes they run through Mexico, how they cluster together — all are too much to hide. Some come by themselves, most in small groups with paid guides. Many are women, who the Human Rights Commission said are routinely sexually assaulted. A few are in families. Often they are leaping into a dark unknown.
“The passage of these brothers and sisters through our country continues to be marked by the defenselessness and vulnerability that the Mexican state forces on them,” the Mexican Catholic Bishops´ Conference said last month.
Mexican immigration authorities said they have convicted several of their employees and have 80 cases of human trafficking under investigation. That would be 80 cases compared to the Human Rights Commission's findings of 10,000 kidnappings in six months, though some cases would involve several victims.
Immigration authorities also said that so far this year they have rescued 2,750 migrants who were stranded in deserts or held by kidnappers. Based on government statistics, however, it is difficult to know how many of those were truly being held captive or voluntarily resting in safe houses on their journey north.
But there is a dangerous change in all of this today. The business of trafficking migrants — or kidnapping them — is being taken over by drug cartels that have transformed into full-blown organized crime organizations which control almost all illicit operations in growing parts of the country. The state of Tamaulipas, where the 72 migrants were massacred, is considered to be largely under the control of organized crime.
Even if the government wants to protect the migrants it may no longer be able to. In many parts of the country it often can’t protect its own citizens.
Mike O'Connor is a journalist and author who lives in Mexico City and is covering the explosion of violence connected to the drug war along the border. O'Connor has reported in the Middle East, Latin America and the Balkans for the New York Times, CBS News and National Public Radio. He is the author of "Crisis Pursued by Disaster, Followed Closely by Catastrophe: A Memoir of Life on the Run."