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January 26, 2021 – WOLA condemns and expresses its profound sorrow at the discovery of 19 murder victims in a burned truck in the northern Mexican border state of Tamaulipas on January 22. The victims are believed to be Guatemalan migrants, based on information provided by witnesses, family members, and Guatemalan officials’ statements. Preliminary media reports drawn from witness accounts suggest that the Guatemalans were attacked by an organized criminal group. Several families in Guatemala’s northwestern San Marcos department, who believe their children to be among the victims, stated that a pandemic-related food shortage had forced their children to set out for the United States earlier in the month.

This grim news recalls other massacres of migrants in transit through Mexico, including the emblematic case of 72 migrants murdered in San Fernando, Tamaulipas just over a decade ago. Such killings form part of a larger picture of daily assaults on migrants in Mexico, enabled by a continuing climate of impunity for these crimes. In recent months, the Trump administration’s disastrous “Remain in Mexico” policy has illustrated the frequency and brutality of violence against migrants: as of December 2020, Human Rights First had compiled a list of over 1,300 publicly reported cases of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, and other attacks against asylum-seekers forced to wait in Mexico under the program.

These endemic patterns of violence demonstrate the urgency of cooperation between Mexico and the United States to address regional mixed migration flows in a way that protects migrants’ safety and human rights, as well as the need to restore access to asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

While both governments’ plans to address root causes of migration in Central America are of great relevance, it is also clear that migration through Mexico will not end soon. On the contrary, the region will see a continuing flow of people seeking asylum and better opportunities due to record hurricanes, crushing poverty exacerbated by COVID-19, and persistent violence in Central America.

Just days ago, for example, Mexican officials found 128 men, women, and children, mostly from Central America, crowded into the back of a shipping truck in the state of Veracruz. The use of such dangerous forms of travel stems largely from Mexico’s detention-and-removal-focused migration policies, which leave people forced to flee their homes with little choice but to seek clandestine routes to the United States, exposing them to increased risk of attack and other dangers.

Mexico and the United States should work together to get out in front of an avoidable crisis of violence against migrants. Now is the time to ensure that the reversal of harmful U.S. border policies and joint plans to address root causes of migration in Central America are accompanied by equally necessary actions on the long and very dangerous journey through Mexico.

There is much the Mexican government can do to protect migrants in its territory. Preventing, investigating, and punishing crimes against migrants, as well as ensuring access to Mexico’s asylum system, are priority actions. In this current case, the Mexican government must guarantee a prompt investigation into the crime, the forensic identification of the victims, and allow the victims’ families and their legal representatives full access to the case file.  Through cooperation and joint investigations into transnational crimes against migrants, the United States can also be an important partner in these efforts. Both countries must ensure that migrants’ safety—at all stages of transit—is at the forefront of current discussions and plans to address regional migration.

WOLA is a leading research and advocacy organization advancing human rights in the Americas. www.wola.org