By Cecilia Farfán-Méndez and Michael Lettieri *
The macabre scene discovered in the Camargo, Tamaulipas on January 22 was a gruesome reminder that violence in Mexico hardly obeys clear logic. In the two charred vehicles, officials found the remains of 19 individuals, victims of a savage attack that left hundreds of bullet holes in the bodies of both the cars and what are believed to be Guatemalan migrants.
Initial reports pointed toward the Cártel del Noreste as having committed the atrocity. However, on February 2nd, Tamaulipas’ state Attorney General announced that 12 state police officers had been arrested in connection with the killing, some of whom were members of the U.S.-trained elite force Grupo de Operaciones Especiales de la Seguridad Pública de Tamaulipas (GOPES). As explained by InSight Crime, GOPES “is a SWAT style reaction force that was formed in mid-2020 to carry out high-profile security operations against organized groups.”
The Camargo tragedy now involves two layers of discussion: 1) the undeniable dangers migrants face in Mexico, in particular while in transit through Tamaulipas (which has a dismal history in this regard), and 2) the relevance of Tamaulipas’s security relationship with the United States, and the question of just how much training the elite state police unit had received from across the border. In the context of another alleged high-profile vetting failure with General Cienfuegos, this has fueled both critiques of bilateral cooperation and calls for more careful examinations of the dynamics in this region of the border.
That the Tamaulipas state police has established a relationship with partners in the U.S. security in the US deserves further attention. But for this information to be meaningful, both for analyzing what happened and providing redress to victims, we need to be careful not to overstate the case. While Tamaulipas might be unique, cross-border police training is not.
While the Mérida Initiative has underscored training activities by US agencies to their Mexican counterparts, these efforts predate Mérida. For example, in the 1980s the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) established the Mexican-American Liaison and Law Enforcement Training (MALLET) which in 2010 was credited with forging ties with authorities and helping reduce violence in Tijuana. The FBI also offers the International Law Enforcement Executive Development Seminar (International LEEDS) aimed at helping counterparts develop or enhance leadership, administrative, and management skills. Both Mexico and Brazil have their own chapter. At various points over the past decade, police at nearly every level in Mexico, and especially those along the border, have had some contact with US counterparts.
The question, then, is why this relationship matters. During the Cold War, ideological indoctrination and training undoubtedly contributed to atrocities by U.S.-trained units across Latin America. In this case, however, it is unclear whether the assistance that the GOPES received from the United States offers any better explanation of why the crime occurred than the discarded claim that it was yet another narco massacre.
Ultimately, the Camargo case demonstrates the urgency of rethinking how agents and units are certified and vetted, and the need for transparency in this sort of bilateral security cooperation. Governments on both sides of the border, and particularly in Tamaulipas, have much to answer for.
* Cecilia Farfán Méndez is head of Security Research Programs at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). Twitter: @farfan_cc & Michael Lettieri is Senior Fellow for Human Rights at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, UC San Diego (UCSD) Twitter: @mike_lettieri