EDITOR’S NOTE: This article contains graphic imagery.
Riding on top of the chatarrero, a junk train heading north, Ismael was recording video on his pink, screen-shattered LG S3 cell phone when he saw another train approaching on the opposite tracks.
Ismael and his girlfriend, Lila (not their real names), were part of an impromptu group of eight undocumented Central American migrants who had banded together to continue their northbound journey through Mexico. A few of them were turning over chunks of scrap metal, looking for nothing in particular, maybe hoping to find something to use or sell. Two Honduran immigrants were riding one car back on a short-sided gondola piled with green-oxidized metal. One of them the group had nicknamed “Catracho” (slang for Honduran). The other the group called “Chino” because of what they considered his slightly Asian-like features. His real name was Beylin Alvino Sarmiento.
Beylin was lanky, wore ripped jeans, and what looked like a donated white polo shirt with red cuffs and collar. On his feet were a pair of Nike Jordans with red accents. He had a long face, with high cheekbones. His eyebrows were thick (one of the consistent traits three witnesses would later remember), and his chin and nose slightly rounded. He was migrating alone.
Ismael wasn’t scared when he noticed the two men on the oncoming train, even though they were heavily-armed and wearing what looked like Mexican Federal Police uniforms, complete with black balaclavas entirely covering their faces. Both trains were in motion, so even if they were Federal Police or Migration authorities there was no way they were going to be able to arrest them.
It was a clear Monday evening, 6:17 pm, August 11 of 2014. The trains, both chugging along slowly, passed each other in a cornfield south of the Querétaro International Airport. As the car Ismael was riding on and the oncoming engine crossed paths, one of the men raised his gun and pointed it at Ismael.
The recording stops at the first gunshot.
There were twelve shots, at least. The first few smacked into the thick metal on the side of the car. The noise was deafening, and then—silence.
Ismael wasn’t hit. Nor was Lila. Nobody in that car was.
But then, the next moment, they could hear it: moaning. It was coming from one car back—the gondola. The gondola with the sides too low to protect a rider from gunfire.
A fast-talking Honduran named Flaco went to check on his traveling companions—but by that time the moaning had stopped. When he came back, he told the group that Catracho was shot in the leg. The young man, Beylin, was dead.
Ismael wanted to make sure. He climbed out of the car, down to the couplings, then up onto the gondola. Beylin was on his stomach, facedown. He had his thumb in his mouth. He wasn’t breathing. Ismael checked his pulse, just in case, but he already knew. He could see the blood. There was a lot of it.
Catracho was okay. A bullet had pierced through his left calf. He was bleeding, but he could walk.
Flaco started going through Beylin’s pockets. Ismael didn’t stop him. He found some money. No ID. And then the shoes, the Jordans Beylin had died in. They looked about Flaco’s size. He untied them, peeled them off the dead man’s feet, careful not to touch any blood. Then he took his own shoes off (also Jordans, but older and white) and left them next to the body. Ismael didn’t say a thing. The train was still picking up speed, the wind cutting hard, the temperature dropping.
When I talked to Flaco a couple of months later, he still had Beylin’s Jordans. He told me: “I try to take care of them the best I can.”
The Plan Frontera Sur
Raids on trains and in cheap hotels often used by migrants (as well as the use of immigration checkpoints) started to spike after US officials began calling on Mexico to help quell the “child migrant crisis” of the summer of 2014. By July, with increasing US pressure, ads were running in papers across Central America to stem the emigration. El Salvador appointed a pop singer as special ambassador, then launched a YouTube cartoon campaign. Guatemala told the kids to ¡Quédate! (“Stay!”) at home. Mexico patched a number of stopgaps together and announced the most aggressive strategy of all, the Plan Frontera Sur (The Southern Border Plan), an immigration law meant to crack down on Central American migrants.
The Plan, inaugurated by President Enrique Peña Nieto in July, came only three years after the much fan-fared Migration Law, which did little but draw bureaucratic hoops migrants had to jump through to win visas for safer, legal travel north. Just between October and April, Mexico has apprehended more than 92,000 Central American immigrants, significantly more than the US, and up over 80 percent since the same period last year.
Mexico has long had a problem protecting migrants passing through the country on their way to the United States. In the last 6 years, according to the International Organization for Migration, between 40 and 70 thousand migrants have died while crossing Mexico. The variation in the figures is almost as frightening as the numbers themselves: the estimate could be off by almost 100%.
In 2010, the Mexican Commission on Human Rights found that over 11,000 migrants had been kidnapped in just the preceding six months. Since that year, as reported by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the government has opened only 48 cases against migrant kidnappings. If the 2010 numbers continued apace, that would be one single investigation for every 1,833 cases in the past four years.
Most of this brutality is typically attributed to criminal gangs and drug cartels. The Mexican government, however, is not only failing to protect migrants or prosecute their assailants, they are also directly involved in extorting, beating, abusing, kidnapping, and even killing migrants. According to The New York Times, a Mexican congressional report in 2011 found that, “more than a fifth of all kidnappings in Mexico involve police officers or soldiers.” More recently, The Times described Mexican officials, in taking steps in response to US pressure to stop migrants passing through Mexico, as “sweeping them off trains.”
Rubén Figueroa, Director of Human Rights for the Movimiento Migrante MesoAmericano (MMM), an international migrant advocacy organization based in Mexico, said of Mexico’s Plan Frontera Sur, allegedly designed to keep migrants safe: “It officializes the hunt for migrants.” Irineo Mujica, director of the migrant rights organization Pueblos Sin Fronteras, described the Plan as “a death strategy… an undeclared war against migrants.”
Sending the Gendarmerie, the Federal Police, or immigration officers to the Mexico-Guatemala border to “lock it down”—on what many see as a servant’s mission for the US—is not just political image doctoring; it is also likely murder. In the 2014 Human Rights Watch report on Mexico, the government was described as having made “little progress in prosecuting widespread killings, enforced disappearances, and torture committed by soldiers and police.” A study conducted by a collective of migrant defense organizations in Mexico reported that nearly 1 in 5 cases of abuse against migrants were committed by authorities, usually the Federal Police.
In September a senior US State Department official, boasting of US-Mexico cooperation in interdicting migrants, said it best when he balefully described Mexico as having “a very, very aggressive southern border strategy.”
On the Move
After the shooting, the group rode the train for about half an hour. As soon as it slowed down, close to the Querétaro International Airport, the remaining seven migrants jumped off and ran for the hills, where they spent the night in an abandoned building.
The next day, in a park in the city of Querétaro, local Police officers confronted them and accused them of loitering. Ismael told them what had happened the day before. After some consideration, the police drove them to the outskirts of the town and told them not to be seen in Querétaro again.
From there the migrants split up. Ismael and Lila continued north, riding trains and collective taxis to Guadalajara, where they found shelter at a migrant hostel and temporary work at a glass factory. Ismael explained to one of the volunteers at the hostel what had happened, but was told that, as the crime had been committed in another state, there was nothing that could be done. After about two weeks of work and savings, they got back on the road. They travelled mostly by bus, but they also hopped the trains again, stopping sometimes to work for a day, finally arriving in Nogales, Sonora, on the US-Mexico border on September 28.
I had originally met Ismael and Lila in a migrant shelter in Oaxaca, in southern Mexico in late July. Then, by chance, we ran into each other again in Nogales where I volunteer with the migrant-aid organization, No More Deaths. After we got over our surprise at seeing each other again, Ismael told me that he had something to show me. We sat down together and watched the video. Two days later, on September 30, with the help of another volunteer, Ismael and Lila reported the murder to an agent at the Attorney General’s Office. A few days later they began their applications for humanitarian visas.
In investigating the case, after interviewing Ismael and Lila multiple times, as well as Flaco by phone, and in repeatedly calling many Public Ministry and Forensic offices in Querétaro and Guanajuato states, looking for anybody who might have found the body of the murdered migrant, I called the Attorney General officer that had taken Ismael and Lila’s report. To my surprise, he agreed to meet me in his office in a few weeks.
On October 29, after waiting for an hour and a half in a hard-backed chair in a tile-walled waiting room, I was led through multiple offices and up and down staircases in the labyrinthine and tumble-down Attorney General’s office building in Nogales. An Oxxo convenience store plastic bag sealed the space around the waiting room’s window-box air-conditioner and a desktop two-hole puncher served as the building’s doorstop.
The office we finally came to was small, with two chairs on either side of a paper-cluttered desk, a glass jar Jesus candle on the floor and a Plug-it-In glowing in an outlet in the wall. There were also about twenty giant bundles of decommissioned marijuana stacked against the wall.
The agent didn’t want me to record our talk, and spoke to me only on the condition of anonymity. He insisted I not even use his name when speaking with his compeers at other Attorney General’s offices. I quickly learned that besides what Ismael and Lila had told him, he knew nothing else about the case. He hadn’t talked to, found, or even looked for any of the other witnesses. I informed him that a body had been found on top of a train in Celaya, Guanajuato, that matched the description of the murdered migrant (the Ministerio Público in Celaya hadn’t yet released Beylin’s name to me). He hadn’t known.
I asked the agent if he thought it was possible that the shooters were Federal Police. He said that it was possible, but that he thought that they were probably part of “a criminal group.” I asked if he’d spoken with anybody at Ferromex to find out the train schedules and who was conducting the engine that day. He told me that he’d spoken with a friend who works for Ferromex who told him that he’d have to talk to somebody in Querétaro. I asked him if he had done so. He hadn’t.
The agent explained to me that the lead investigator in the case would be assigned in Querétaro, the location of the incident, and that he had sent the file of Ismael and Lila’s declaration, including a copy of the video, to Querétaro. I asked him whom he had sent it to. He made a show of shuffling through his scattered desk papers. He told me he would track the name down and let me know. I asked when he had sent it. He told me: “Two or three days after” he took their report.
“Look,” he said to me, “I’m not doing anything bad.”
He had nothing else to tell me about the case. He never asked me to see the photos I had of Beylin, or if I could put him in contact with the third witness, Flaco.
At the end of the interview, unprompted, the agent took a utility knife out of his desk and offered to cut open a marijuana bundle. I didn’t object and watched as he sliced through the packaging, revealing the deep, dusted green of the giant brick of marijuana, once on its way over the border to an unknown destination in the US, now scent-competing with a Jesus candle in the office of an Attorney General’s agent in Sonora.
I called the agent multiple times after our meeting to find out who he had sent the file to in Querétaro. When I finally reached him he said that there was a problem and the file had not actually been sent, but that he would send it the next day. I called him again the following week, and he told me that the file had finally been sent. I asked him for a name, but he claimed that he had sent it to the general office, on November 14, which was 45 days after he heard Ismael and Lila’s testimony. I asked if he could confirm that the file had arrived. He could not, he said, adding that he had no other information to give me.
I called the offices in Querétaro to see if they had received the file. They told me that they received hundreds of correspondences a day and it was impossible to track down a file without a collaboration number. I called the agent again in Nogales to ask for the collaboration number, but he wouldn’t return my calls. He never got back to me.
At every stage of the investigation into Beylin’s death, officials have demonstrated practically no interest in finding his killers. He was shot in broad daylight, with several witnesses, and a video was recorded of the shooting. Yet authorities have been unable to determine whether the gunmen were indeed Federal Police, or bandits dressed to play the part.
Beylin’s is not a solitary case. One migrant who was assaulted by a Federal Police officer on a cargo train told me that word on the migrant trail is that authorities are using pepper spray and clubs to “disinfect” the trains.
I also found two other incidents of migrants being shot at while riding trains in Guanajuato. In the first, another Honduran migrant, Rafael, saw a Federal Police truck parked on top of a bridge the train was about to pass underneath around 10 at night. Officers were shining a light down at the train. As Rafael passed under the bridge, officers shot at him three times, hitting him in his left calf. He showed me the nickel-sized scar. Another bullet he felt zip by his head. I spoke with yet another migrant, Juan, who told me a similar story, except that the shooters were wearing the green uniforms of private security agents.
Rubén Figueroa, from MMM, explained to me that the majority of the raids on the trains and migrant trails since the implementation of the Plan Frontera Sur involved police, usually Federal Police. “They are violent operations,” he said. “Federal Police are not trained to perform this type of operation. There aren’t trainings to teach them to respect the human rights of migrants. [Since the implementation of the Plan Frontera Sur] the operations have intensified.”
Indeed: the director of the Plan, Humberto Mayans, hailed that there would be a “permanent presence of the state” on railways. In the months following the initial implementation, migrant aid organizations throughout Mexico were chalking up increased migrant assaults and abuses committed by authorities. According to a study conducted by migrant rights defenders in Oaxaca, crimes against migrants have increased 90 percent since the initiation of the plan.
Undocumented migrants and other vulnerable populations in Mexico seem to invariably suffer in the presence of the state. This is not news. In a declassified document obtained by the North American Congress on Latin America, officials at the US Embassy acknowledged in 2011 that “migration authorities and local police often turn a blind eye [to] or collude” in the atrocities committed against migrants.
By January of 2015, however, according to migrant aid workers I’ve spoken with in Guanajuato and Sonora, the “permanence” of state presence had lapsed, and immigration raids began slowing down. “It’s half-forgotten,” one volunteer told me. (She has received direct death threats from Los Zetas and asked to remain anonymous.) But though organized raids may be tapering off, state violence against migrants in Mexico still seems to be booming.
Engracia Robles, a long-time volunteer at Kino Border Initiative (KBI) in Nogales, has been collecting testimonies of state abuse against migrants for years. Robles is a slight, serious, yet smile-ready missionary sister who gives empowering speeches to migrants before meals. “You have rights,” she once told a large group of men and women eating at a migrant soup kitchen in Nogales. “And you have the right to defend your rights.” She gave me a long list of testimonies (she and other KBI volunteers have recently collected fifty) from migrants, all pertaining to abuses committed by State or Federal Police. According to the testimonies, migrants were repeatedly robbed by Federal or State Police (sometimes for sums as high as $8,000), told that “Hondurans weren’t worth shit,” “thrown to the ground,” “beaten with a pistol 13 times,” “kicked as if I were a snake,” as well as beaten and threatened, and beaten and robbed, and beaten and not-robbed, and beaten some more.
The Engine Car
The shooters that Ismael recorded on August 11 were riding a Ferromex engine car—the door to the cab only feet away from where the officers were standing. It’s commonly understood on the migrant trails that, in isolated tracts of railroad, engineers stop the train to let bandits come aboard and collect a “tax” from the migrants. In 2014, in Veracruz state, the governor opened an investigation into the culpability of two of the country’s biggest train operators (including the parent company of Ferromex) for collaborating with criminal organizations to rob and kidnap migrants. There are estimates that criminal organizations make upwards of $250 million a year in the business.
The engine on which the black-uniformed gunmen who killed Beylin were riding was hauling BNSF Auto-Max cars, which are specially designed to transport SUVs. In 2010, after suffering repeated robberies of cargo material, Ferromex started hiring the Mexican Federal Police to provide armed protection for trains transporting high-value cargo, such as petroleum or cars. The first section of rail on which Federal officers began protecting Ferromex trains was between Guanajuato and Querétaro, which is where Beylin was murdered.
I talked to a train conductor who works for Ferromex. On the condition of anonymity, he explained to me the relationship conductors have with the Federal Police guards: Where they get on the train, how they interact, and, significantly, that conductors always know when the police are on board. I asked him if bandits board the train. He said it happens, sometimes in collusion with the Federal Police. When I showed him the video, he said, “That is exactly what they [Federal Police] look like when guarding the trains.”
I also asked him if someone from Ferromex would have information about who was conducting the train that evening, southbound from Querétaro International Airport, on August 11. He assured me that they would. Though Ferromex has stopped responding to my questions, Federal investigators could subpoena the information, probably even ascertaining if Federal Police officers (and which ones) were assigned as security for that train.
After months of working on the story, slowly piecing together more and more information, Lila told me that she found something for me. It was a blue, ink-bled, tiny scrap of paper (it had been lost in her clothes) with a name and email address on it for Catracho, the migrant who was shot in the leg. I tried emailing him, but his hotmail account didn’t work. I joined Facebook to look for him, and, though the name she had written was slightly off, I found him.
He was suspicious about who I was and how I had found him, but finally agreed to talk. He (like Rafael) had been shot through the left calf. The injury, luckily, wasn’t serious. He sent me a few cell phone photos of his scar. At that point it had been more than five months since he’d been shot. He told me the same story that Ismael and Lila told me, the same story that Flaco told me. When I asked him who it was that shot him in the leg, who it was that killed Beylin, he said, “The police. The police that guard the trains. They were Federal Police.” How did he know they were police? “On their vests,” he said, “it said Policia Federal.”
Besides his family, I was the first person Catracho had told the story to. He’d never gone to report the incident to the police or any government official. Nor had any investigator ever come to him.
Outfitting a Murderer
The increased and increasingly violent interdiction of migrants south of the border, in Mexico, as well as in Guatemala and Honduras, is a clear exportation of the deadly cat-and-mouse game the US Border Patrol has been playing with migrants for years. The Border Patrol’s tactics have led to increased vulnerability for migrants and more death along the border: It is estimated that more than 6,000 migrants have died while crossing the US-Mexico border since 1998, though many migrant remains are never discovered. The Border Patrol is also widely accused of perpetuating a culture of cruelty towards migrants.
In the summer of 2014, just after the announcement of the Plan, the US committed $86 million, through the Mérida Initiative, to help Mexico build the same sort of migrant hunting institution (checkpoints, armed agents, helicopters and patrol boats) that is utilized in the US.
The Leahy Law, however, first passed in 1997, prohibits the US Department of State and the Department of Defense from providing military assistance to units of security forces that have committed gross violations of human rights. The Mérida Initiative has to date requisitioned over $2.5 billion (and trained at least 20,000 officers) to Mexico, a country whose own government acknowledges consistent human rights violations and rampant impunity. When initially passed in 2007, according to a Congressional report, the first batch of Mérida funding “had less stringent human rights conditions” than earlier proposed. This already watered down concern for human rights was later even more drastically diluted in 2012 when, before considering the withholding of further funds, the two first provisions, including “improving the transparency and accountability of federal police forces,” were eliminated.
That is to say, the murder of a 12-year old boy in Ostula, the killing of 16 unarmed civilians in Apatzingán, the execution-style murder of 22 people in Tlatlaya, and the disappearance and probable murder of 43 student teachers in Iguala, according to US law, reason enough to stop funding Mexican security operations. John Ackerman summed up this criminal callousness in Foreign Policy: the “U.S. government’s blind support for [President] Peña Nieto has helped create the context of absolute impunity in which forced disappearances, or massacres, like the one in Iguala are possible.” As long as the guns, cash, and support flows south, expect headlines to continue to blazon state-sponsored atrocities in Mexico.
After having filed four requests through Mexico’s National Institute for Access to Information (INAI as abbreviated in Spanish, similar to submitting a Freedom of Information Act request in the US) to try to learn more about the investigation into the case and getting repeatedly stonewalled by Public Ministries and Attorney General Offices throughout Mexico, I went to Mexico’s National Commission of Human Rights (CNDH, in Spanish) and told them the story as I knew it. After filing my own testimony, I was named the principal complainant in a case of “violation of human rights” against the Attorney General of Mexico for lack of investigation. I was assigned an agent and afforded the backing of a national institution to petition for information about the investigation.
The two cases (Beylin’s murder, and Ismael and Lila’s testimony of his murder) don’t seem to have been connected by investigators until at least March 6, when the CNDH contacted the Federal Police because of my complaint filed in January. That is, Beylin’s body had been found on August 12th, a day after the shooting, in the state of Guanajuato. Officials there identified him, found his family, and, with assistance from the Honduran consulate, shipped his remains to his family in September. The cause of death was recorded as “thoracic impact by high velocity projectile shot from a firearm.”
That much investigators at the Public Ministry in Celaya had told me in November. Most likely, the case had since gone cold, if it was ever warm to begin with. As the testimonies submitted by Ismael and Lila were sent not to Guanajuato where the body had been found and where the initial investigation had been opened, but were allegedly sent, at least three months later, to Querétaro (where the shooting occurred), it remains unclear whether anybody investigating the murder of Beylin had ever heard about the alleged Federal Police shooting, or had seen the video, until the CNDH informed Federal agents in March.
Beylin’s body was discovered near Celaya, Guanajuato at kilometer 2+720, on the Celaya-Villagrán railroad line. Officers from the Public Ministry found a cell phone on him, and contacted Beylin’s father, whose name is Sixto. When I tracked down (after months of searching which included advertising on a community radio station) and finally spoke with Sixto, he described the conditions that drove Beylin to migrate—a hungry family and a tenuous future—and the conditions in which his body was returned to him. He told me he had to pay 8,000 Lempiras (about $365) just to receive the body, which is about a month’s salary for him.
Like his murdered son used to, Sixto works as a farmhand, picking mostly beans and corn. When he received Beylin’s body, he also received a packet of information, including a perfunctory explanation of the circumstances surrounding his son’s death: Time, date, location, and cause, as well as other paperwork from the airline and the Mexican funeral home who prepared the body. The cause of death was listed in technical medical jargon with no attending explanation about suspects or the state of the investigation. In the full year since his son’s murder, Sixto has received no further communication from any Mexican agency. He told me that he had had to sell his home to pay for receiving and then burying his son.
According to CNDH, representatives of the Federal Police declared that they had “no prior awareness or participation” in the case. The police also alleged that they do not conduct the kinds of operations described both in my report and in Ismael and Lila’s testimony. To date, Mexico’s official investigation into the attempted murder of Ismael and Lila, the aggravated assault of Catracho, and the murder of Beylin is still open.
In the year since the shooting, Lila was eventually granted a truncated version (four months) of a humanitarian visa to stay in Mexico. Ismael’s application was denied.
After Ismael was arrested in February for “stealing the internet” (he was using the WiFi signal from a migrant shelter he had previously stayed in) and serving three days in a Tijuana jail, Ismael and Lila decided, for the time being, to give up on their hopes of crossing into the United States. They are going together to Honduras, where a friend has offered them a temporary home.