By February 2010, US consulate officials in Monterrey, Mexico, had long connected Héctor Santos Saucedo, then head of Coahuila’s state investigations, to the Zetas. This was at a time when the Zetas—the notorious criminal drug organization formed by soldiers who had defected from an elite army unit—had consolidated control over much of the political and security apparatus in Mexico’s northern region. According to internal US government reports from around that time, Zeta influence was “longstanding and widespread throughout local and state government,” and cartels were operating “with near total impunity in the face of compromised local security forces.” Despite US knowledge that Santos was part of the Zetas’ sphere of influence, he continued to hold central positions in the counter-drug effort; he was named director general of investigations in the State of Coahuila in January 2010 after being dismissed from his post as head of the state investigative unit in Nuevo León. The following year, the town of Allende, Coahuila, became the site of one of the drug war’s worst massacres—one that is just now coming to light after years of cover-up.
Between March 18 and 21, 2011, the Zetas conducted an operation in the town of Allende, kidnapping and executing a reported 300 family members, friends and others associated with three Zetas believed to be informants for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Even though Coahuila state government officials, as well as the federal attorney general’s office, received complaints of the attack as it was being carried out, no security forces intervened to prevent the killings. Neither state nor federal officials investigated the attack afterward, and Coahuila’s governor did not publicly acknowledge the killings until over a year later.
It wasn’t until January 2014 that authorities began searching for the remains of those disappeared and announced the exhumation of mass graves in the area. In a chilling depiction reminiscent of the case of the forty-three students from Ayotzinapa who were disappeared in Iguala, Guerrero, last September, some of the hundreds of remains showed signs of burning from attempted incineration. It still is not clear what prompted the search for the remains three years after the massacre, or who is behind the cover-up, but the close links between local and state authorities and the Zetas could likely provide some clues.
The Allende massacre is just one of many atrocities that have been carried out in recent years in Mexico. While Ayotzinapa was the crime that shocked global consciousness, focusing the world’s attention on the country’s human rights crisis, the case of the forty-three students follows a pattern, one characterized by state secrecy, state links to criminal organizations and official cover-up. The Coahuila case also exposes how US officials in Mexico regularly receive information on Mexican government links to organized crime and abuse, while at the same time Washington provides equipment, assistance and training to compromised agencies. This assistance is delivered as part of the Mérida Initiative—the ongoing counter-drug aid package signed in 2006, which was originally proposed as a three-year program but continues to this day; Washington has spent roughly $2.5 billion on Mérida since 2008. While US laws explicitly prohibit the delivery of aid to foreign individuals and units implicated in systematic human rights violations, internal reporting on the implementation of Mérida programs reveals that institutional connections to organized crime are consistently overlooked, ignored or kept hidden from public scrutiny as counter-drug money continues to flow.