There were seventy-two people in all. They were migrants from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Brazil and possibly elsewhere, and their final destination turned out to be the same place: a patch of overgrown grass along the cinder-block walls of an abandoned building on a ranch in San Fernando, in the northeastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, ninety miles south of Brownsville, Texas.
It was August 2010, and they had been traveling on three trucks headed to the United States that had been stopped by members of the Zetas, a Mexican cartel known for its ruthless violence. The Zetas gave the men the option of working for them as sicarios (hit men), and the women as domestic help. All but one refused. Some were blindfolded, their hands bound behind their backs. Then, with single gunshots to the head, the Zetas executed them, fifty-eight men and fourteen women (at least one of whom was reported to be pregnant). Had Luis Freddy Lala Pomavilla, an 18-year-old Ecuadorean shot in the neck, not played dead and then walked through the night before arriving at a military checkpoint, it is possible that the migrants’ bodies—like so many others—never would have been discovered.
The killings became known as the San Fernando Massacre. They gained immediate national and international attention and represented “a new level of violence” by the drug cartels, according to the US government. Central American authorities called for an investigation of the Mexican government and the lack of security it provided migrants. In Mexico, the commissioner of the National Migration Institute resigned in the wake of the massacre, and the government announced a banal, toothless five-point plan. The United States, for its part, developed a “bilateral strategic plan” with Mexico’s Department of the Interior that aimed to increase information sharing, establish visa requirements for Central Americans in Mexico, provide training for Mexican migration officials, and increase detentions and deportations from Mexico—with financial assistance from the United States, if necessary.
The massacre may have forced governments to talk tough, but their responses have done nothing to improve migrants’ well-being or eliminate the many dangers they confront. Since 2010, the kidnappings, extortion, exploitation, sexual assaults, rapes and killings have continued, and migrants remain as vulnerable as ever. Still, an estimated 400,000 migrants—almost all of them Central American—pass through Mexico each year en route to the United States. As the Mexican writer and editor Eduardo Rabasa asks in an essay from 72 Migrantes, a website and “virtual altar” commemorating the victims of San Fernando, if people are well aware of the risks and realities of migrating yet continue to do so, “How brutal must that which they leave behind be?”
Central Americans started migrating to the United States in large numbers in the 1970s and ’80s, as social unrest, revolution and civil wars spread throughout the region. The United States, however, was more than the end of the journey for migrants: it was also partially responsible for creating the conditions that forced them to trek north. Believing that systematic human-rights violations were an acceptable price to pay for containing communism in its own backyard, the US government sent billions of dollars and provided military training to repressive right-wing regimes in Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Time and again, Congress renewed its fiscal support, despite knowledge that government-backed death squads carried out mass killings of innocent civilians, disappeared thousands more and assassinated prominent public figures.