New Document Throws More Light on Mexico’s San Fernando Killings

Federal prosecutors in Mexico have made the first official disclosure of investigative files concerning state complicity in the country’s 2010–11 migrant massacres in San Fernando. In August 2010, in San Fernando, authorities discovered the bodies of 72 migrants, and then in April 2011, 47 mass graves of another 193 victims.

Soon after, authorities disclosed that municipal police officials were arrested in connection with the mass graves. Yet for years, prosecutors refused to divulge any official records on the arrests—citing an ongoing investigation. Finally, on December 10, prosecutors released a formerly secret document with details on the police connection to the massacres, following an order from the national information oversight body.

The San Fernando massacres have become emblematic of a wider pattern of mishandled investigations, state secrecy, official connections to drug-related violence, and denial of human rights atrocities in Mexico. While both sets of killings were reportedly carried out by the Zeta drug cartel, the newly disclosed document provides details on the role of police officials implicated by—and allegedly under the pay of—the cartel.

Human rights organizations and migrant rights defenders have sought official information on the San Fernando massacres and other abuses against migrants, and engaged in a right-to-truth campaign to push for the full disclosure of information on the cases. The recent disclosure is important for other cases where local police have been implicated in targeted acts of violence, such as the case of 43 missing Iguala students. Earlier this week, a report from the Mexican journal Proceso implicated the federal police in the students’ disappearance, based on leaked government documents.

The newly released document paints a picture of official connection to organized crime where the line between state and non-state criminal actors is blurred. According to the document (an informative report, or Nota Informativa), municipal police were paid by the Zetas to act as vigilantes (labores de halcones) to intercept people, and provide cover for the cartel members.

One member of the Zetas told investigators that police were paid to detain people, and, rather than taking them to the municipal detention center (referred to as the “pentagon”), they handed them over to the cartel members. The police arrested in connection to the mass graves were among those who had allegedly been working for the Zetas.

Federal prosecutors have refused to acknowledge the San Fernando investigations relate to human rights violations, asserting that the killings are criminal acts perpetrated by drug cartels. Nonetheless, Mexico’s information oversight body (IFAI) and the lower courts declared that the San Fernando massacres constitute prima facie grave human rights violations, according to criteria based on international human rights conventions to which Mexico is a party, and jurisprudence established by Mexico’s Supreme Court.

These criteria include the acquiescence, tolerance, or direct participation of the state in the acts in question. Confirming this role of the state, as confirmed by the information contained in the declassified document, is important to establishing that other acts of violence constitute human rights violations, such as the current pressing case relating to the Iguala disappearances.

This also heightens the obligation of the state to disclose information—Mexico’s information law prohibits the classification of otherwise protected information where it concerns gross human rights violations. In August, IFAI ordered disclosure relying on this law.

The release of the document represents a major breakthrough for the ongoing legal efforts of two NGOs—Article 19 and the Foundation for Justice (Fundación para la Justicia—FJEDD)—to get access to the full investigative files in connection with migrant killings, including these incidents. This issue is now before Mexico’s Supreme Court, which will soon decide if the federal prosecutors must disclose public versions of the investigative files relating to migrant killings.

The newly disclosed document is only the tip of the iceberg, as there are hundreds of pages of still-secret investigative files with illuminating information essential to clarifying the role of the state in gross human rights violations. 

The disclosure is also significant beyond Mexico’s borders. It sets a precedent for other counties with similar human rights provisions (such as Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Peru, and Uruguay) that prohibit the government from keeping secret information related to human rights violations and crimes against humanity.

While these human rights overrides are strong on paper, they are underutilized and rarely enforced. The successful use of Mexico’s human rights clause to secure access to information relating to a contemporary human rights violation is important for open-government advocates working to access similar information in other countries. 

Developments in this case will be important to watch, as they have the potential to further the basis for claiming an enforceable right of access to relevant information held by Mexican agencies on other human rights violations. Rights groups in Mexico are calling for the Iguala disappearances to be recognized as human rights violations and pushing for greater access to official information on the crimes. This release could follow further disclosures as calls for the right to truth in Mexico seem to be growing louder by the day.

Jesse Franzblau filed an information request as part of the Migration Declassified project with the National Security Archive, resulting in the IFAI judgment described here.

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