As demonstrators across Mexico take to the streets to protest the government’s involvement in the September 2014 disappearance of forty-three students in Iguala, Guerrero, a case bearing many of the same grim hallmarks is getting renewed attention.
In August 2010, the Zetas cartel abducted and killed seventy-two people pulled from buses traveling the highways near San Fernando, Tamaulipas, a town more than 1,000 kilometers northeast of Guerrero. In April of the next year, the remains of 193 people were discovered buried in dozens of mass graves in the same part of the state.
Seventeen San Fernando police officers were arrested and seven indicted in connection with the disappearances. But the details of the investigation remained under wraps until last month, when the Procuraduría General de la República, Mexico’s attorney general’s office, declassified a key document detailing the government’s findings. Released under Mexico’s transparency law at the request of the National Security Archive, a pro-transparency group based in Washington, DC, the three-page memo offers a small window into the secretive workings of the country’s justice system.
As in the Iguala case, federal authorities suspected that local officials helped organize the killings. We now know that those early suspicions were well grounded. Produced by the Subprocuraduría Especializada en Investigación de Delincuencia Organizada (SEIDO)—an investigative unit that focuses on organized crime—the memo describes a robust and routine pattern of narco-police collaboration in San Fernando. Captured Zetas told investigators that police acted as lookouts for the group, helped with “the interception of persons,” and turned a blind eye to their illegal activities.
“I know that police and transit officials in San Fernando help the Zetas organization,” testified Álvaro Alba Terrazas, one of the seventeen police officers detained. “Rather than take detainees to the Pentágano, which is to say the municipal jail, they would deliver them to the Zetas.” Terrazas also identified two other San Fernando cops on the Zetas’ payroll. The statement excerpted in the memo does not specify which prisoners were handed over to the Zetas or why.
One Zeta member captured in the months following the discovery of the gravesites told authorities that the cartel screened all buses passing through the region for passengers with ties to the rival Gulf Cartel. “Every day a bus would come, and every day we would pull the people off and investigate them,” said Edgar Huerta Montiel, also know as “El Wache.” Huerta said the Zetas would scan passengers’ cellphones and text messages for evidence linking them to the rival group. “Those that had nothing to do with it were freed, and those that did were killed.”