CIUDAD VICTORIA, Mexico (AP) — When state police in northern Mexico allegedly shot 19 people, including at least 14 Guatemalan migrants, to death in late January near the border with Texas, it was a tragedy that critics say authorities had been warned could come.
In 2019, prosecutors charged that the same Tamaulipas state police unit, then operating under a different name, pulled eight people from their homes in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, posed them in clothing and vehicles to make them look like criminals, and shot them to death.
Now, a dozen officers of the 150-member Special Operations Group, known by its Spanish initials as GOPES, have been ordered held for trial on charges they shot to death at least 14 Guatemalan migrants and two Mexicans on a rural road in the border township of Camargo. The bodies were then set afire and burned so badly that three other corpses are still awaiting identification.
Authorities had ample warning of the problems in the unit, which was created last year from the remains of the special forces group accused of the 2019 killings and other atrocities. A federal legislator even filed a nonbinding resolution in Mexico's Congress in early January to protest beatings and robberies by the unit.
As recently as November, a Tamaulipas business association charged that officers in the GOPES unit had broken into a member's home and stolen cash, other belongings and appliances. The group said the victim even took remote photos through her home's security cameras showing uniformed officers with guns slung over their backs robbing her house.
The complaint was ignored, and nothing was ever done to rein the unit in.
"If back then they had done something, if any attention had been paid, perhaps today we would not be mourning the deaths of 19 people," said Marco Antonio Mariño, vice president of the Tamaulipas Federation of Business Chambers.
Tamaulipas has seen rival drug cartels fighting the longest, bloodiest, best-equipped turf war in Mexico's history for over a decade now. Bands of gunmen with names like "The Troop from Hell" regularly drive around in home-made armored trucks.
The cartels coopted so many municipal police forces in Tamaulipas that the state decided to dissolve them all and rely more on better-trained state police officers. And the federal government's withdrawal of Mexican marines, who once provided much of the heavy firepower for law enforcement in the state, encouraged the state to create elite units like GOPES.
So fearsome is the unit's reputation that the U.S. government, which trained a few of its individual members, has sought to distance itself from the force, which it refers to both by its former initials, CAIET, and its current name, GOPES.
The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City said three of the 12 officers charged in the migrant massacre "received basic skills and/or first line supervisor training" through a State Department program before they were assigned to the special unit. "The training of these individuals took place in 2016 and 2017 and were fully compliant with Leahy (human rights) vetting," the embassy said.
CAIET is the Spanish acronym for the Tamaulipas Center for Analysis, Information and Studies, a bizarrely academic name for what was essentially a rapid-reaction, SWAT-style police force. Like GOPES, it often operated with armored cars and masks.
In 2019, the bodies of the eight people dragged from their homes in Nuevo Laredo were later found with gunshot wounds to the head, dressed in camouflage cartel-style gear with bulletproof vests bearing Cartel de Noreste initials, with guns by their sides. Prosecutors eventually concluded that CAIET officers planted the guns and cartel gear on the victims before executing them.