*CONTENT WARNING: EXTREMELY GRAPHIC PHOTOS BELOW

On January 23, 19 burned bodies were found in the rural area of Santa Anita in the Camargo municipality in Tamaulipas. 'La frontera chica', the northwestern panhandle of Tamaulipas that includes Cd. Mier, Cd. Miguel Aleman and Camargo, is used by human traffickers to smuggle migrants mostly from Central American countries into the United States in search of a better life. The victims are believed to include at least 13 Guatemalan nationals.

According to reporting by Juan Alberto Cedillo for Proceso, area residents initially claimed that a group of gunmen from Cártel del Noreste found 19 Guatemalan nationals in a house in Santa Anita, murdered them at the residence and then moved the bodies to the outskirts along the border with the neighboring state of Nuevo León. It now appears that this account was coerced by the Tamaulipas police responsible for the killings. On February 2, it was reported that 12 members of the Tamaulipas state police were charged with the murders of the 19 people in Santa Anita. The police apparently picked up their spent brass and attempted to destroy the bodies by burning them.

This wasn't an isolated incident. Fabrication of evidence, coercion of witness testimony, kidnapping, enforced disappearance, torture and murder by even the elite and well-trained Tamaulipas police have been documented repeatedly. The police implicated in the Santa Anita murders include members of the Grupo de Operaciones Especiales (GOPES).

The GOPES (formerly known as CAIET) are a specially-vetted elite counternarcotics unit in Tamaulipas trained by the United States. U.S. federal and state law enforcement agencies have trained, advised and assisted the police in Tamaulipas through the the Se Busca initiative and the Campaign for Security and Prosperity.

The United States has trained the Tamaulipas state police since at least 2017

On September 5, 2019, CAIET, the predecessor of the GOPES, detained 8 people, reportedly forced them to put on military fatigues, transported them to a house on the outskirts of Nuevo Laredo and executed them. The police posed the bodies with weapons to look like they died in a gun fight and even towed a truck to the scene to simulate a vehicular pursuit that never happened. One of the victims, Jennifer Romero López, 21, had only arrived in Nuevo Laredo three days earlier with her boyfriend. She had no criminal record and was two months pregnant when she was executed by the police.

Jennifer Romero López

Several of the officers involved were eventually charged, but less than one month after the atrocity, the U.S. held a ceremony with the governor of Tamaulipas to announce the re-launching of the Se Busca initiative. The extrajudicial killings barely even registered in the U.S. media, which rationalized the executions by emphasizing that the police believed that some of the victims were associated with a drug trafficking group.

This time is different though. The murders of the 19 people cannot be dismissed this time because most of the victims were Central American migrants at the mercy of the violent men that control life and death in la frontera chica. This time, they are an indisputable part of a pattern of gross violations of human rights by the U.S.-trained police in Tamaulipas.