CIUDAD VICTORIA – When state police in northern Mexico allegedly shot 19 people, including at least 14 Guatemalan migrants, to death in late January near the border with Texas, it was a tragedy that critics say authorities had been warned could come.
In 2019, prosecutors charged that the same Tamaulipas state police unit, then operating under a different name, pulled eight people from their homes in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, posed them in clothing and vehicles to make them look like criminals, and shot them to death.
Now, a dozen officers of the 150-member Special Operations Group, known by its Spanish initials as GOPES, have been ordered held for trial on charges they shot to death at least 14 Guatemalan migrants and two Mexicans on a rural road in the border township of Camargo. The bodies were then set afire and burned so badly that three other corpses are still awaiting identification.
Authorities had ample warning of the problems in the unit, which was created last year from the remains of the special forces group accused of the 2019 killings and other atrocities. A federal legislator even filed a non-binding resolution in Mexico's Congress in early January to protest beatings and robberies by the unit.
As recently as November, a Tamaulipas business association charged that officers in the GOPES unit had broken into a member’s home and stolen cash, other belongings and appliances. The group said the victim even took remote photos through her home’s security cameras showing uniformed officers with guns slung over their backs robbing her house.
The complaint was ignored, and nothing was ever done to rein the unit in.
“If back then they had done something, if any attention had been paid, perhaps today we would not be mourning the deaths of 19 people,” said Marco Antonio Mariño, vice president of the Tamaulipas Federation of Business Chambers.
Tamaulipas has seen rival drug cartels fighting the longest, bloodiest, best-equipped turf war in Mexico's history for over a decade now. Bands of gunmen with names like “The Troop from Hell” regularly drive around in home-made armored trucks.
The cartels coopted so many municipal police forces in Tamaulipas that the state decided to dissolve them all and rely more on better-trained state police officers. And the federal government's withdrawal of Mexican marines, who once provided much of the heavy firepower for law enforcement in the state, encouraged the state to create elite units like GOPES.
So fearsome is the unit's reputation that the U.S. government, which trained a few of its individual members, has sought to distance itself from the force, which it refers to both by its former initials, CAIET, and its current name, GOPES.
The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City said three of the 12 officers charged in the migrant massacre “received basic skills and/or first line supervisor training” through a State Department program before they were assigned to the special unit. "The training of these individuals took place in 2016 and 2017 and were fully compliant with Leahy (human rights) vetting,” the embassy said.
CAIET is the Spanish acronym for the Tamaulipas Center for Analysis, Information and Studies, a bizarrely academic name for what was essentially a rapid-reaction, SWAT-style police force. Like GOPES, it often operated with armored cars and masks.
In 2019, the bodies of the eight people dragged from their homes in Nuevo Laredo were later found with gunshot wounds to the head, dressed in camouflage cartel-style gear with bulletproof vests bearing Cartel de Noreste initials, with guns by their sides. Prosecutors eventually concluded that CAIET officers planted the guns and cartel gear on the victims before executing them.
Raymundo Ramos, the human rights activist who investigated and exposed the Nuevo Laredo massacre, notes that despite those findings only two of the 40 members of the CAIET unit involved in the killings are in custody facing charges. Three other officers agreed to testify in return for getting their charges dropped, and two officers are fugitives.
Authorities didn't dissolve the CAIET unit. They just changed its name to GOPES.
“This is a recurring practice among (state) governments, that they just change their names to clean up the image of their police forces,” Ramos said.
Prosecutors have not publicly discussed any motive for why the GOPES officers allegedly decided to massacre the migrants, and court hearings in the case so far have not been open to the public.
The migrants were accompanied by several Mexicans who were apparently serving as armed “protection” for the “shipment” of migrants being smuggled to the U.S. border. The Gulf cartel makes much of its money by charging migrant traffickers a protection fee for passing through its territory. It also makes money kidnapping unaccompanied migrants, torturing them until they reveal the phone numbers of relatives in the United States and holding them for ransom.
Among the theories is that the GOPES officers opened fire on armed gang members aboard the migrants' vehicle — three assault rifles were found in the burned-out pickup. The gunfire killed the guards, and the officers then killed the migrants seeking to hide their mistake.
State prosecutors say the fact that there were no shell casings found at the massacre site means police picked them up to cover their tracks.
Ramos said that fits in with the unit's tactics. “Normally, they do not leave witnesses. That is part of their training,” he said.
In the 2019 massacre in Nuevo Laredo, the police unit did leave four witnesses at the homes from which the victims were dragged, apparently only because the four were teenage girls or mothers with children.
The problem is not just limited to killings, said Oscar Hernández, an anthropologists at Colegio de la Frontera Norte.
“It's not news that some police units get involved in this kind of thing, not just violence, which is the most visible, but other things like aiding and abetting, and corruption," Hernández said.
Mariño, the business leader, stresses that some state police units have made it safe again to use the roads in Tamaulipas, where drivers and bus passengers were once routinely abducted and never heard from again.
The GOPES unit isn't the first of Tamaulipas' problem with abusive police forces.
In 2014, a police unit known as “Grupo Hercules,” which acted as a sort of paramilitary bodyguard for the mayor of the border city of Matamoros, and Mexican marines abducted and murdered four people, including three American siblings.
Erica, Alex and Jose Angel Alvarado Rivera of Progreso, Texas, disappeared in October 2014 while visiting their father in Control, a small town in Mexico near Matamoros, which is across the border from Brownsville, Texas. An acquaintance, Mexican citizen Jose Guadalupe Castaneda Benitez, was also taken. Their bodies were all found shot in the head more than two weeks later.
Other facets of this year's massacre remain unexplained. For example, Ramos said some of the officers detained in the case have said they killed the migrants, but didn't burn the bodies.
A briefing paper from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration suggests the rival Northeast Cartel was active in the area in late January, looking to kill a top Gulf cartel figure, when they happened on the migrants. Some people believe the Northeast cartel gunmen could have either been involved in the massacre, or at least have set the pickup and the bodies afire after they were killed, to damage the Gulf cartel’s operations.
One point everyone agrees on: The bodies were so badly burned that in the normal course of events they might never have been identified and could have been buried and forgotten as the likely participants in just another gunbattle between cartels.
But unknown to the GOPES unit, the pickup was part of a larger convoy of vehicles carrying migrants, including a Guatemalan migrant smuggler who knew all the victims. He advised their families back home of the massacre and the relatives went public with the news.
“If it had not been for him, they might all be buried now, as just more suspected criminals,” said Ramos.
Stevenson reported from Mexico City.