Last week the Mexican Supreme Court announced that it would rule on whether or not to make public the records of the investigation pertaining to the cases of migrant mass graves found in the states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon in 2010 and 2011. Initially set to be ruled on in the First Chamber of the Court on November 18th, the ruling, which civil society has been waiting for during the past five years, will now be decided by the full panel of Supreme Court judges.
The decision could set precedents for transparency and access to information on cases of serious human rights violations in Mexico and could reveal further details about the alleged role or acquiescence of federal and municipal police in crimes against migrants in transit through Mexico. LAWGEF calls on the Mexican Supreme Court not to delay and to respond to the opportunity to set an important precedent on access to information on cases of crimes against migrants, shed truth on the circumstances surrounding the crime and define a path forward for justice for the families of victims.
Migrant Families’ Search for Truth & Justice
Over five years ago, on August 25, 2010, 72 migrant bodies were found in the ““El Huizachal” ranch in the municipality of San Fernando in the state of Tamaulipas. Pictures of the torsos of the 58 men and 14 women from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Brazil and Ecuador who had been transiting through Mexico en route to the United States revealed the egregious violence that migrants face in their journey. They were confirmed to have been killed by the organized crime cartel, Los Zetas. This incident was followed by the identification of remains of two similar mass graves of migrants; one in the same municipality of San Fernando in 2011 where 193 human remains were found and a third one in 2012 in the state of Nuevo León where 49 bodies were located. Both cases involved Mexican and Central American migrants.
Since immediately after these incidents through the present, Mexican civil society organizations like the Fundación para la Justicia y El Estado Democrático del Derecho have been working to urge the Mexican government to investigate the acts and have accompanied the families of the migrants in the processes to identify the remains and repatriate the bodies. Migrants like Wilmer Gerardo Núñez Posadas, a twenty-eight year old Honduran who had just been deported to San Pedro Sula from the U.S. for a traffic fine and stayed only four days before leaving to get back to the United States to see his newborn baby and Yemi Victoria Castro, a fifteen-year-old girl from El Salvador who had grown up with her grandparents and whose mother had sent a coyote to bring her to New York were among the 72 killed in the San Fernando massacre. Since finding the mass graves, their families and those of the other victims have had to endure a bureaucratic nightmare between various Mexican government agencies and their own consulates to fight to identify the remains of their loved ones and receive their bodies. Over five years later, some families still lack answers on whether or not their loved ones were among the remains and some have even received the wrong bodies in the process.
To respond to the some of the initial inefficiencies in the investigations, the Commission of Forensic Experts was established in August 2013 between civil society organizations, independent forensic experts and the Mexican Attorney General’s Office to move forward on bringing answers to the families of the migrants. It, too, however has had limited progress and has demonstrated obstacles such as mismanaging the exhumation of bodies, a lack of coordination between federal and state level forensic staff as well as a lack of adherence to established protocols in notifying family members and repatriating bodies. As of September 2015, 11 of the 72 bodies from the first San Fernando mass grave have still not been identified. Civil society groups raised some of these concerns at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in specific hearings against Mexico in 2014 and 2015.
Failed Attempts to Access Information
The pending Supreme Court decision comes after multiple repeated requests by civil society organizations to release information on the Tamaulipas and Nuevo León migrant massacres since as early as 2010. The initial requests made by Fundación para la Justicia and Article 19 were denied on the grounds that the information was deemed to be classified. In response, in 2012, both organizations submitted separate freedom of information act requests to Mexico’s Federal Institute for Transparency, Access to Information and Protection of Personal Information (Instituto Nacional de Transparencia, Acceso a la Información y Protección de Datos Personales, now INAI formerly IFAI) arguing that because the acts constituted serious human rights violations according to criteria outlined under the Mexican Transparency Law they could not be withheld under any exceptions. In response to both appeals, INAI backed the Attorney General’s Office decision to keep the files classified. Fundación para la Justicia and Article 19 then submitted separate appeals to these denials in 2012 and 2013 that two lower-level Mexico City district judges conceded to agreeing that the massacres constituted grave human rights violations. The National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos) has to date not considered the incidents cases of serious human rights violations. When it was confirmed that the Supreme Court would rule on the case, civil society organizations submitted two amicci curiae to the Court on October 15th arguing that the INAI had a responsibility under the Mexican Transparency Law to share the documents to guarantee society’s right to truth.
The only documents that have been declassified to date on the case were made public on December 2014 through the work of the National Security Archive, a U.S. based group, who together with Mexican civil society organizations submitted a freedom of information act request that was granted by the Mexican Attorney General’s Office. The documents identified nine members of the Los Zetas criminal group and 17 members of the San Fernando police force arrested in connection to the migrant killings and provided testimony on how the police acted as lookouts, helped the Zetas abduct their victims and turned a blind eye to the Zetas’ crimes against the migrants. Ten out of the 17 members of the San Fernando police members were freed from charges. Seven others are still under prosecution under seven different charges but since then no other information has been released on their arrest charges. The decision to be made by the Supreme Court could reveal further details around the exact role that federal and local police played in the attacks against the migrants and in allowing the incidents to happen.
Ineffective Responses for Crimes Against Migrants
The ways in which these investigations of migrant massacres were handled reflect the broader obstacles faced by the family members of the disappeared in accessing truth and justice in Mexico as well as the human rights violations suffered by migrants in transit through Mexico. The San Fernando, Tamaulipas and Cadereyta, Nuevo Leon mass graves are not the only such cases. Crimes against migrants transiting through Mexico such as kidnapping, trafficking, summary executions, forced disappearances, sexual violence, robbery, assaults and extortion by organized crime and law enforcement authorities have been documented by migrant shelters and civil society organizations since before 2010. However, no official statistics exist on the prevalence of these crimes in Mexican territory since statistics published by the CNDH in 2011 that estimated about 20,000 migrants kidnapped in a single year. The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights Report on the Situation of Migrants from 2013 highlighted that there is no single registry of disappeared migrants and that authorities do not keep consistent figures. In the absence of official statistics, many family members of disappeared migrants have begun keeping track of their own cases together with Mexican civil society organizations and migrant shelters.
As a new report highlights, the situation of human rights violations has been exacerbated recently due to increased migration enforcement and detention of migrants under Mexico’s Southern Border Plan. Efforts to prevent migrants from riding the train, or the Bestia, and an increase in violent operatives has pushed migrants to take more isolated routes further away from the shelters where they had frequently stopped in the past. Despite the presence of several state-level specialized prosecutor’s offices focusing on crimes against migrants, there has still been an overall lack of response to complaints of crimes against migrants.
Implications of Moving Forward
The Mexican Attorney General’s Office has now promised the implementation of a Specialized Unit of the Transnational Mechanism and the Investigation of Crimes against Migrants (Unidad Especializada del Mecanismo Transnacional e Investigación de Delitos Contra Migrantes) to be created in the first half of 2016. This would allegedly incorporate the transnational mechanism to search for missing migrants that civil society organizations have repeatedly called for.
While LAWGEF recognizes the importance of establishing such an office and the significant incorporation of the long requested transnational mechanism to search for missing migrants, we also call for clear guidelines on protocols to investigate crimes against migrants, including notifications to family members on migrant remains and repatriations that respect their human rights and dignity, immediate responses on previous cases and for improved coordination between state level and federal level prosecutor’s offices on investigating crimes against migrants.
LAWGEF also calls for transparency on the progress of investigating and prosecuting such cases of crimes against migrants to the public. In the same way that the public records of the Ayotzinapa investigation of the 43 disappeared students are important for providing truth to the broader society, a favorable Supreme Court ruling on the cases of San Fernando, Tamaulipas and Cadereyta, Nuevo Leon could also be a step forward in shedding light on cases of serious human rights violations against migrants. A negative ruling, however, would be a step backwards for transparency and access to information not only on cases of violations against migrants but could also impact future such cases brought before various courts in Mexico.
The family members of the migrants found in the mass graves in Tamaulipas and Nuevo León have been waiting for five years for answers on how their loved ones were killed and to have their remains home with them. Thousands of other families of the disappeared in Mexico have been waiting for even longer on the whereabouts of their relatives. The Mexican Supreme Court should not further delay an opportunity to move forward on transparency and the protection of human rights for migrants and other victims.