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SALTILLO, Mexico — In the waning days of January 2014 state and federal security forces along with military troops fanned out across the scrubland of Coahuila in northern Mexico, reportedly in search of human remains.
Over 20 days, some 250 masked agents combed the ranches and towns of Allende, Nava, Acuña and Piedras Negras, across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas, for the victims of a massacre. Activists and state officials agreed the operation represented the first serious effort undertaken by the government to search for the disappeared — people kidnapped or detained who never resurfaced, dead or alive.
The mass killing, likely the largest in Mexico in recent years, had some 300 victims. According to witnesses and court testimony, entire families were yanked from homes and off the streets before vanishing into the brush, their homes later demolished. State officials attributed the violence to Los Zetas, a highly violent criminal group that has dominated a swath of northern Mexico, saying the group set out to exact revenge on the families of two traitors. The killings, said the state prosecutor, went on for months.
The search for remains quickly became a media event, with headlines announcing the discovery of narcofosas, unmarked mass graves while television reports beamed images of barrels allegedly used to dissolve bodies.
Government officials claimed inmates at a Piedras Negras prison had killed an estimated 100 people and burned their bodies inside the prison walls. By the end of the operation, according to government officials, the search had yielded an estimated 2,500 remains, although it was unclear how many were human.
But these killings occurred in 2011. Left unexplained was why the government waited three years to launch its search. Missing from the official statements was any explanation as to how the Zetas — whose name means Z — were able to carry out days, if not months, of killings unimpeded by law enforcement. There was no indication that the military, which was posted at a base in Piedras Negras and operated a checkpoint outside of Allende, intervened.
It’s more than Zetas against Zetas. It has to do with corruption. It has to do with political power.
professor, University of Texas at Brownsville
“It’s obvious, in the context of violence or criminality, it doesn’t happen without the collaboration or the permission of agents of the state,” said Luis Efrén Ríos, director of the law school at the Autonomous University of Coahuila and a member of the official working group on the disappeared. “It’s up to the prosecutor to determine who is responsible.”
Questions about possible government complicity — directly or indirectly — generally dissipate when violence is branded as Zeta-related. Indeed, as violence in Mexico’s northern region continues unabated, in lieu of investigations and convictions, Zeta is the catchall explanation applied to criminality, one that has the effect of silencing further questions.
But a closer look at the details of the massacre, the government operation, and documented disappearances by human rights groups offers a glimpse at network of corruption, collusion and impunity concealed behind the letter Z.
“It’s more than Zetas against Zetas. It has to do with corruption. It has to do with political power,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, chairwoman of the government department at the University of Texas at Brownsville and author of a forthcoming book about the Zetas. “There exist elements that suggest the use of paramilitary tactics, in which it’s not clear the role of the state in clashes and mass executions.”
A massive unmarked grave
People began to disappear in Mexico in large numbers after President Felipe Calderón launched his war against drug traffickers in 2006. By 2013, the Mexican government, under a new administration, pegged the number of disappeared at 26,121, adding that not all were criminally related.
Experts and several human rights groups, however, estimate that reported cases represent roughly 10 percent of the total, as most people are reluctant to appeal to authorities who were either involved in or suspected of having ties to organized crime groups. Based on their calculations, the actual number could be closer to 200,000 people.
At the time of the massacre, Coahuila and its neighbors to the east, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas, had become black zones, with news suppressed and killings unreported, much less investigated. The region is best described as a massive unmarked grave site, with the number of disappearances among the highest in the country.
Some 1,835 people disappeared in Coahuila from December 2006 to April 2012, according to official statistics cited in a Human Rights Watch report. Nearby in Monterrey Nuevo Leon, roughly 600 people disappeared, according to official estimates. But Sister Consuelo Morales, director of Citizens in Support of Human Rights, said her organization registered 1,195 cases.
On March 18, 2011, just as the massacrewas getting underway in Coahuila, investigators with the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances arrived in Mexico on a fact-finding mission. Investigators had no knowledge that violence had erupted near Allende when their tour reached Saltillo, the capital of Coahuila.
Even so, their investigation produced enough information to issue a report condemning the Mexican government for its failure to investigate the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared and punish those responsible.
The Working Group reserved its harshest criticism for “the chronic pattern of impunity” related to “enforced disappearances,” those carried out by state agents directly or indirectly.
In some instances, security forces detained people and took them to military bases, according to a statement by the working group. In 2013, Human Rights Watch documented 250 disappearances, 140 of which were enforced disappearances. Local human rights groups report that 30 to 50 percent of their cases were linked to state agents, including the army and navy.
“Enforced disappearance is a technique of terror,” Ariel Dulitzky, chairman-rapporteur of the working group, said in testimony before the General Assembly. “They are not an accident, a police mistake or a consequence inherent to all armed conflict … Today enforced disappearance is recognized as a crime against humanity.”
In 2011 violence in the region was increasing, and the military’s presence there continued to escalate. U.S. assistance through the $1.9 billion aid package known as the Merida Initiative was flowing into the country after some delays. The aid focused on equipping and training the Mexican military, “forces engaged in counterdrug efforts.”
Never heard from again
Disappearances carried out by organized crime groups were generally motivated by the possibility of obtaining a ransom, said former journalist Raymundo Ramos, now the director of the Human Rights Committee of Nuevo Laredo.In the case of authorities, he said, the navy would detain people after receiving information that the person was tied to organized crime or drug or arms trafficking.
“Those who cooperated — meaning they had information that would help the military identify people involved in organized crime — were released,” he said. “When these people were released, the first thing they did was leave the city.” Others, he said, were never heard from again.
From May through July of 2011, Ramos calculated, the navy detained approximately 80 people just in Nuevo Laredo. One of them was Jose Cruz Diaz, a tattoo shop owner. In June 2011 a navy convoy arrived at Cruz’s tattoo parlor in central Nuevo Laredo and, according to his wife, Barbara Peña, began searching the premises.
She said the uniformed men didn’t ask for anyone in particular and didn’t present a court order. After a few minutes, they found a small quantity of marijuana and detained Cruz and another man.
“They were pleasant,” Peña said. “They even let him leave the keys to the shop and someone in charge.”
In a press release, the navy admitted it had been in contact with Cruz. “Up to the present, there is no evidence that suggests that navy personnel secured, much less unlawfully deprived these persons of their liberty.”
Cruz was never seen again.
On May 15, 2014, three months after Ramos spoke with Al Jazeera America, some 50 armed members of the navy surrounded the Human Rights Committee of Nuevo Laredo’s offices. He said they attempted to enter and search to “ensure everything was in order.” Human Rights Watch issued a letter to the Mexican government expressing alarm and requesting intervention. After searching nearby homes, the navy cleared the area.
A sack of corruption
On the patio of his residence in Coahuila, Bishop Raul Vera explained the outbreak in violence and disappearances like those in Allende by invoking a memory from his childhood. He described slipping into the church confessional booth and with each misdeed he uttered, Vera imagined frogs, snakes and cockroaches springing from his mouth.
“Well, that’s how I see the image of the Mexican state — with a sack in which there are all sorts of roaches, all kinds of corruption. You try and clean it out, but the sack is so deep.”
There comes a moment, he says, when you can’t dive any deeper because inside lie monsters that are very powerful.
“Let’s suppose that there had existed a small, tenuous difference between the supposed legal and political system and the narco organizations, the cartels,” said Vera, who operates the Center for Human Rights Fray Juan de Larios, which defends migrants’ and prisoners’ rights. “That line is faded now because of the degree of corruption.”
Federal court records in Texas offer critical look at the alleged links between the political and criminal world. U.S. prosecutors have accused former Coahuila Finance Minister Hector Javier Villarreal of laundering money connected to drug trafficking, bribery of a public official and embezzlement of public funds. The crimes allegedly began in 2008 while he served under former Gov. Humberto Moreira, brother of the current governor, Ruben Moreira, and continued well past the time of the massacre.
In a separate indictment, prosecutors accused Villarreal and Moreira’s successor, Jorge Juan Torres, of laundering public funds embezzled from Coahuila and depositing them in U.S. and Bermuda bank accounts. Villarreal allegedly invested $20 million in banks, real estate and businesses across South Texas.
Villarreal turned himself in to agents in El Paso, Texas, and, through an attorney, has denied the charges.
In instances when the state government engaged in direct confrontation with the Zetas, the circumstances raised questions about whether retribution or justice was the objective. After a unit of the state police created under the Ruben Moreira killed a nephew of Zeta boss Miguel Treviño Morales, the Zetas struck back.
Hours later, the son of Humberto Moreira was found dead in his pickup truck, with two gunshots to the head, near Ciudad Acuña.
Four days later, the military killed Heriberto Lazcano, a founding member of the Zetas, but his body soon disappeared, spirited away from an unguarded funeral home.
In contrast, a swift response was decidedly absent in the area around Allende, where killings went on while the military sat idly by. Details contained in U.S. court documents raise questions about the official explanation that the massacre was in retaliation against former drug traffickers Hector Moreno and Jose Luis Gaytan Garza.
Last year Moreno testified before a federal court in Austin that he moved two tons of cocaine a year across the border for the Zetas and that Zeta boss Miguel Treviño Morales and his brother suspected that he and Gaytan were responsible for the losses of several drug loads.
Moreno told the court that he fled the area after the killings began. “Lots of deaths. They even started killing families in Allende and Piedras Negras and Musquiz and Sabinas. They also wanted to kill me,” he said, according to a transcript.
Curiously, he did not specify that the victims belonged to his family. Although the murders were supposedly acts of retribution, Moreno somehow managed to escape the massacre accompanied by his wife, children and siblings. With U.S. government help, the drug trafficker crossed the border into Texas after agreeing to provide information about the Zetas to federal prosecutors. He said he arrived largely empty handed and financially dependent on family members after the Zeta brothers seized or destroyed his assets.
Attorneys on the case and prosecutors in Coahuila did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
A claim of torture
In January, midway through the government’s search for human remains, Jackie Campbell, who works with Bishop Vera, received a distressed phone call from inmates at the prison in Saltillo, Coahuila’s capital. They told Campbell, who monitors prison conditions for Vera’s group, that inmate Ramon Burciaga, who was serving a prison sentence for kidnapping, had been led out of his cell abusively and then guards entered his cell and emptied it. There is only one reason cells are cleaned out, she said: when an inmate dies.
Campbell said she began calling prison officials and discovered that Burciaga was en route to the prison in Piedras Negras, where some of the killings related to the massacre reportedly occurred. In 2011, he was an inmate in the prison. In a 16-page letter that he later sent to a judge, Burciaga detailed how he was handed over to the GATES, elite state police akin to SWAT teams, whose members were mining the area around Allende for human remains.
He said he was tortured for hours and forced to sign a confession claiming responsibility for the disappearance and killing of at least 100 people in Nava and Allende, where the massacre took place and where the operation had just wrapped up.
Burciaga wrote that agents said, “Tell [the prosecutors] that the Zetas entered [the prison] to bring bastards to burn them.”
He returned to Saltillo the following Monday, and Campbell rushed over to debrief him and photograph his injuries. His confession has not surfaced. Authorities said that inmate confessions and interrogations obtained at the prison were used to launch the operation.
No explanation has been given about whether prison authorities intervened to prevent the killings.
A telling report
In late April, a working group consisting of representatives of the state government, the United Nations, legal experts and victims’ families represented by Families with United Forces for Our Disappeared in Coahuila, FUUNDEC, forwarded government documents related to the operation to outside forensic experts for analysis.
The working group released a report about the operation that included a review conducted by members of the world-renowned Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, which has developed an exhaustive process for investigating human remains tied to disappearances.
The team applauded the scope and intention of the mission while saying that errors in execution were to be expected in a first-time search of this magnitude. However, the experts noted that missing from government’s documents was any sign of a preliminarily investigation or strategy for the operation. No information could be found about the locations where skeletal remains had been found or about the methods of collecting evidence. And it seemed that the often laborious inspections were, in the case of Allende and the surrounding areas, carried out in one day.
Two people with information about the operation told Al Jazeera thatremains were found lying on the ground, dismissing claims of the highly publicized discovery of narcofosas.
While the technology used was of considerable quality, the experts could find nothing to confirm that the agents had been trained in the equipment used in the operation. Still unknown are the factors that prompted the operation and its timing, three years after the massacre occurred.
Much like the violence across northern Mexico, the government operation is wrapped in mystery and lingering questions about what occurred, why it happened and who is responsible.
“The state does not act, and it won’t,” said Jorge Verístegui González, a co-founder of FUUNDEC, “because doing so would be to act against itself.”