August 24 marks 10 years since the discovery of 72 migrants—58 men and 14 women, from countries like Guatemala, Ecuador, and Brazil—who were killed by a criminal group in San Fernando, Tamaulipas state, in northern Mexico. The tragedy is an emblematic case not only of the violence and dangers that migrants face when journeying through Mexico, but of the Mexican government’s failure to address and prevent those abuses. The case is also indicative of the widespread lack of justice for crimes against migrants: a decade later, no one has been convicted.
The tragedy in San Fernando—which saw the migrants kidnapped and killed, reportedly for refusing to work for the criminal group—was no anomaly. In 2010, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH) estimated that approximately 20,000 migrants were kidnapped in Mexico. Ten years later, kidnapping remains one of the most common crimes that migrants report experiencing. Authorities have identified hundreds of migrant remains pulled from mass graves—such as the 48 graves with 196 people, discovered in 2011in San Fernando, and another with 49 torsos, found in 2012 in Cadereyta, Nuevo Leon—raising the question of how many of the tens of thousands of unidentified remains in Mexico may belong to missing migrants. A 2019 study found that about one in three migrants experience some form of violence when transiting through Mexico.
So long as justice and protections for migrants are not brought to the forefront, then Mexico has not yet absorbed the lessons of the San Fernando massacre.
Complicity between security forces and violent armed groups, unchecked corruption in sectors of the justice system and other government agencies, the failure to investigate and prosecute crimes against migrants, and the apparent indifference of authorities to abuses suffered by migrants created the conditions in which a tragedy like the San Fernando massacre could happen. These same problems remain prevalent in Mexico today, even as the nature of some of the risks faced by migrants has evolved. But policies like “Remain in Mexico” remain centered around indifference to the suffering of migrants: the U.S. government is expelling migrants and asylum seekers back to Mexican border towns, including some of the most violent in the world, where they are experiencing violent assaults.
In response to U.S. pressure and threats, the Mexican government acquiesced to the expansion of “Remain in Mexico,” and dramatically increased detentions and deportations, again prioritizing harsh migration policies over treating those exercising their right to migrate in a rights-respecting, humane, and dignified way. So long as justice and protections for migrants are not brought to the forefront, then Mexico has not yet absorbed the lessons of the San Fernando massacre.
The U.S. government has a critical role to play in addressing the dangers that migrants in transit face in Mexico. Central to this is reversing the damage wrought by the Trump administration by restoring the right to access asylum at the border, and ending “Remain in Mexico” and other policies that force asylum seekers to wait in Mexican border towns where they are not safe. U.S. authorities can continue to collaborate in investigations involving transnational crimes against migrants and sharing information with Mexican counterparts, as well as supporting efforts in Mexico to identify the backlog of unidentified remains.
The families of the victims of the San Fernando massacre have waited far too long for truth and justice in this case.
When the San Fernando massacre happened, U.S. diplomats at the time noted that widespread corruption in Mexico had compromised the ability of security forces and government authorities to properly investigate the atrocity, let alone maintain law and order in parts of northeast Mexico (as past WOLA research has documented, in too many cases, criminal groups work in complicity with government agents in kidnapping and other crimes against migrants). Corruption remains a pervasive issue that is preventing Mexico from addressing challenges of migration and violence; as such, the U.S. government should continue to recognize the fundamental importance of supporting efforts in Mexico to strengthen rule of law and anti-corruption efforts.
The families of the victims of the San Fernando massacre have waited far too long for truth and justice in this case. Mexico’s National Prosecutor’s Office should further the investigation by creating a special multidisciplinary commission tasked with the case and ensure that families are able to participate in the investigation without having to make the costly journey to Mexico. The Mexican government should also take steps to identify the nine unidentified remains in the case and provide certainty to other families who tragically continue to have doubts about the identity of the remains they received.