COMITANCILLO, Guatemala (AP) — In this impoverished Indigenous village, families are convinced that 13 of their relatives were among the 19 bullet-ridden, burned bodies found in northern Mexico near the U.S. border last week.
Mexico has not yet identified the bodies, so it’s not clear they were migrants. But people in Comitancillo, near Guatemala’s border with Mexico, are so sure that they have already put photos of the mainly youthful migrants — 10 men and three women — on traditional altars for the dead, surrounded by candles and flowers.
Irma Yolanda Jimenez Pérez says her 17-year-old nephew, Rivaldo Danilo Jimenez, is among the dead, according to the smuggler who accompanied the group.
“The man who took them, he called him (her brother) saying there had been bad news,” Jimenez Pérez said. “My brother said, ‘What is the news?’ And then he said, ‘They are dead.’”
“They say they shot them and then they burned them, and that is what we know,” she added.
While Guatemala’s Foreign Ministry is collecting DNA samples from the relatives to compare with that of the charred corpses, what the families say matches all too well what is known about the massacre.
On Saturday, authorities in the northern Mexico state of Tamaulipas found 19 bodies piled in a burned-out pickup truck on a dirt road across the Rio Grande from Texas. Four bodies were found in the cab and the other 15 were piled in the bed of the truck.
All had been shot, but shell casings were not found at the site, leading investigators to believe they were killed somewhere else.
Camargo, the area where the bodies were found, has long been the scene of turf battles between rival drug gangs, and authorities said three rifles were found in the burned pickup truck.
If the bodies are identified as the Guatemalan migrants, the killings would revive memories of the 2010 massacre of 72 migrants in the same gang-ridden state of Tamaulipas.
Tamaulipas Gov. Francisco Javier Garcia Cabeza de Vaca said Thursday his state would not be given over to organized crime and promised the killings would not go unpunished. He said the state prosecutor’s office was coordinating with the Guatemalan government for DNA testing necessary to identify the bodies.
“These events outrage us, because they are expressions of the violence that do not correspond to the peaceful Tamaulipas we desire and are building together,” he said during a news conference where he offered condolences and expressed solidarity with the victims’ families.
Roman Catholic leaders in Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas said in an open letter to Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador that they were very concerned about the vulnerability of migrants to organized crime while crossing Mexico and demanded a thorough investigation into the killings.
“The events reported in Camargo cannot be just another statistic of impunity and obscurity,” the cardinals and bishops wrote.
Jimenez Pérez said the timing of the Tamaulipas killings matches when relatives lost contact with the 13 Guatemalan migrants. “My brother said he (Rivaldo Danilo) always texted him and let him know where they were, but then he stopped texting,” she said.
Like Rivaldo Danilo’s family, farmer Ricardo García Pérez has already erected an altar to his daughter Santa Cristina García Pérez, 20. She set off with the others for the U.S. border on Jan. 12. But then he received a phone call, also from a migrant smuggler.
“On Saturday, they told me that ‘your relative died … the vehicle they were in was burned and everything was reduced to ashes,’” he recalled.
Garcia Pérez, who had mortgaged his home to pay for his daughter’s trip, contacted the smuggler who had taken the local group north — a man known well in the village, who Garcia Pérez would not name and who apparently survived the attack.
“That’s when we started calling this guy, who cried,” Garcia Pérez said. “Since then we haven’t heard anything from him.”
The group had left quietly with their smuggler just days before a couple thousand migrants set out from the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula in a caravan that drew international attention as it crossed into Guatemala and was broken up by authorities.
The reasons that led Comitancillo’s migrants to make the dangerous trip were varied, but all boiled down to the same thing: the hope of a better life. Rivaldo Danilo earned only about $6.50 a day working in local corn fields,and wanted to continue school. Santa Cristina went north in hopes of earning enough money to pay for an operation for a relative born with a cleft lip.
Saidy Aguilon, the wife of migrant Ivan Gudiel Pablo, 22, said he left with the group because he wanted to work in the United States, to earn money to pay for treatment for his diabetic mother. He also had another dream: He played keyboard in a Catholic music group and wanted to buy better instruments for them.
Aguilon said her husband also suddenly stopped texting or calling around the time of the massacre.
The loss has left families in Comitancillo with nothing but their faith to rely on.
Garcia Pérez has a message for those who killed his daughter. “I ask those men that did this, maybe they could do harm to her or get away with it, but her heart lives on, shining, with the Lord.”
Irma Yolanda Jimenez Pérez has a starker question, one that no doubt will be ringing through Mexico as well.
“Is there no justice for these human beings? Why did they do this?” she said. “We want an explanation, why did this happen to our family?”
“The people who did this, must have no heart,” she said.
Associated Press writers Sonia Pérez D. in Guatemala City and Alfredo Peña in Ciudad Victoria, Mexico, contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.