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The remorseful policeman of the Camargo massacre: ‘They finished them off and poured gasoline on them. Then they set them on fire’

One of the 12 police officers accused of murdering 17 migrants and two smugglers in 2021 in northern Mexico changed his story a few months after the incident. In his testimony, to which EL PAÍS has had access, he acknowledges the massacre and says that more agents were involved

The remorseful policeman of the Camargo massacre: ‘They finished them off and poured gasoline on them. Then they set them on fire’
Idalia Candelas
Pablo Ferri

One of the 12 Tamaulipas police officers accused of the Camargo massacre, Ismael Vázquez, confessed that they were the ones who shot, killed and burned the bodies of 19 people, most of whom were migrants, in the northern Mexican city of Camargo in January 2021. Vázquez, 28, admitted to the killing in August of that year, thus contradicting the version given six months earlier, which stated that the bodies had been found burning. As a result of his new testimony, the officer requested protection to avoid possible repercussions from his colleagues, who have maintained their innocence.

The trial against him and the rest of the officers for the murder of the 19 victims began Monday in Ciudad Victoria, the capital of Tamaulipas. The hearing, presided over by Justice Patricio Lugo, lasted only three hours, during which the judge conducted a roll call of those present, including defendants, attorneys, prosecutors and the victims’ families. The absence of Vázquez’s lawyer, who was in another hearing, and the orphanage of two other defendants who lost their lawyer, forced the judge to suspend the session and reschedule it for the beginning of June.

Vázquez’s repentant testimony, to which EL PAÍS has had access, is part of the array of evidence being processed by the Prosecutor’s Office in Tamaulipas against the police officers in question. Along with his statement, the District Attorney will summon 79 other witnesses before the judge, including experts, residents and analysts, together with other documentary evidence. This newspaper is in possession of copies of this evidence. In his new statement, Vázquez singles out the commanders of the police operation, particularly Horacio Rocha Nambo, as those primarily responsible for the crimes. The officer also says that a total of 24 Tamaulipas police officers were involved, not only the 12 accused.

An image of the Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck, part of the ballistics report available to the Prosecutor’s Office of Tamaulipas.
An image of the Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck, part of the ballistics report available to the Prosecutor’s Office of Tamaulipas.

One of the cruelest massacres recorded during the current administration, the Camargo case highlights the vulnerability of migrants in Mexico and the blurred boundaries between crime and the State. The killing of 17 migrants and the two ‘coyotes’ — human smugglers —who were transporting them, is reminiscent of the mass murders in 2010 and 2011 in San Fernando, only a couple of hundred kilometers south of Camargo. The brutality with which the migrants were treated — most of them coming from Comitancillo, a small town in the southern mountain range of Guatemala — places the perpetrators of the massacres on the same level, whether they were criminals or police officers.

Vázquez’s account starts on the morning of January 22, the day of the massacre, and finishes just one day later, when he describes how his bosses ordered them to return to the scene of the crime to pick up bullet shells in an attempt to mislead the investigators. Throughout, he says that it was one of his bosses, the commander of the Special Operations Group (GOPES) of the Tamaulipas Police, Horacio Rocha Nambo, who ordered him to give a false story. Nambo is also at the center of one of the most relevant parts of Vázquez’s testimony, immediately after the first bullets were fired.

The pursuit of the vehicles in which the migrants were traveling, complicated by the cloud of dust on the road, had come to an end, according to Vázquez. This was at 10 a.m., on the morning of January 22. The police had fired multiple rounds, first during the chase and then when the vehicles were stationary. Some of the migrants and their coyotes sustained injuries. This is where Vázquez says his bosses decided to load them all into one of the two pickup trucks that appeared at the crime scene, a Chevrolet Silverado. Once they were in the truck, they finished them off and set their bodies on fire.

At that point, Vázquez had moved slightly away from the Chevrolet Silverado, staying with a female colleague next to one of the police vehicles, at a distance of only a few meters. He says that from there, he saw a fellow officer, Cristian Eduardo González García, go past with a canister of gasoline. “He put it on the ground, where the commanders were. At that moment we heard more gunshots, about 10 blasts. It must have been one of them who finished them off, those from the Nambo unit,” he said, in reference to the commander.

Vázquez goes on to explain that another of his colleagues, among the 12 who have not yet been arrested or named by the prosecutor’s office, seized the canister and poured the gasoline over the Silverado. “Commander Nambo was holding a small lighter and he lit a piece of paper and tossed it into the back of the pickup truck where the bodies were lying. And it caught fire,” says the remorseful agent. Vázquez then goes on to mention another name. “Mayra went to her truck. And Nambo said, ‘Let’s go, let’s go.”

This was Mayra Elizabeth Vázquez Santillana, coordinator of the Tamaulipas police in Ciudad Mier and adjoining areas — namely Camargo and Díaz Ordaz — a little to the east of the city. Vázquez Santillana was in charge of the state police operation that day along that stretch of the border with the United States. As commander of the GOPES group in the region, Nambo was working under her orders. Therefore, it was Vázquez Santillana who drafted and signed the report of the events for the Attorney General’s Office after they took place.

Weapons belonging to one of the police officers accused of the Camargo massacre.
Weapons belonging to one of the police officers accused of the Camargo massacre.

‘What are you waiting for? Shoot!’ ‘But I can’t see anything.’ ‘Just shoot’

In the report, Vázquez Santillana recounts a totally different story to the one given by the repentant policeman. To begin with, she says that there were only three patrol cars, rather than six. Later, she says that they knew something had happened because a man who emerged from the bushes told them that he had heard a confrontation close by. According to the coordinator, this occurred after 2 p.m. However, this was four hours after the attack on the migrants had started, say Vázquez and several witnesses in the area, who were interviewed by the Prosecutor’s Office shortly after the incident, as recorded in the case file, a copy of which is in this newspaper’s possession.

In her account, Vázquez Santillana goes on to mention finding a van on fire. The fire was so intense that they couldn’t get close to it. After a while they realized that there was another truck on fire nearby. They moved closer and saw burnt people on the floor and in the back of the pickup truck. By then, the coordinator had called the State Prosecutor’s Office to report the incidents. The agent’s account was barely maintained for a few days. By January 28, the Prosecutor’s Office was on top of the case, and some details had changed. The man who had appeared from the bushes no longer existed. He had been fabricated. Days later, the Prosecutor’s Office arrested Vázquez Santillana and 11 other officers.

The testimony of the remorseful officer paints a different picture from that of his coordinator. Vázquez relates how he and his other 23 colleagues left the state police station in Camargo between 8.30 a.m. and 9.00 a.m. on January 22, aboard six vehicles. The coordinator and her officers, four in total, were on board two pick-up trucks. Meanwhile, Nambo and his crew of 20 officers were spread out among four vehicles, three ‘mambas,’ a variety of armored tanks, and a pick-up truck. One of those mambas, with Nambo sitting in the front, was leading the convoy. The coordinator’s two vehicles were right behind. Agent Ismael Vázquez was in the fourth vehicle (also a mamba) of the convoy.

The convoy stopped to refuel. They loaded the tanks and also carafes, a common procedure, he explains, because this allows the patrols to circulate for a longer period of time without having to drive back to the gas station. That gasoline would later be used to burn the migrants’ bodies. The motorcade then headed towards Valadeces, a town between Camargo and Diaz Ordaz. From there they drove south on dirt roads. They passed through Ejido Lucio Blanco and became lost. As Vázquez said, “those are the places where things get rough.”

The Chevrolet Silverado, at the Rodriguez funerary in Miguel Aleman, when the bodies had recently been unloaded.
The Chevrolet Silverado, at the Rodriguez funerary in Miguel Aleman, when the bodies had recently been unloaded.

A few minutes later, the officer began to hear codes coming over the radio transmitters, compound numbers 52, 25 and 49. “That implies that we were aware that there were units with armed personnel,” he explains. Nambo’s mamba then accelerated and the others did the same. “The driver of my unit got lost on the same dust trail. My unit and the ones behind it became separated from the convoy.” In other words, the commander’s armored car and Vázquez Santillana’s two units were on one side, and the two GOPES mambas and one pick-up truck were on the other.

“At that point, we came across two pickup trucks,” explains the officer. The vehicle’s commander, a GOPES policeman who has not been arrested or named, ordered the driver to move in on the pickup trucks. “I thought they were going to shoot at us, but they didn’t,” says Vázquez. Over the radio, the GOPES chief, Horacio Rocha Nambo, could be heard stating in code that they were targeting “aggressors” and that they needed help. The commander of Vazquez’s unit chose to ignore the pickup trucks they had come across in order to search for the chief.

Gunshots echoed over the radio. Minutes later, the three missing GOPES pickup trucks eventually came upon the two belonging to coordinator Mayra Vázquez Santillana, which were blocking the passage in an opening in the road. According to Vázquez, there was total confusion. Over the loudspeaker of his mamba, someone asked the coordinators to move to the side. Up ahead, Vázquez could make out Nambo’s mamba and a white civilian pick-up truck, as the shooting continued.

Finally, the coordinator’s crew moved the pickups and the missing GOPES vehicles arrived with chief Nambo. “From the rear units, everyone got off except the gunner,” says Vázquez. Here the policeman is referring to the officers in charge of the machine gun fitted on top of the special operations group’s vehicles. Vázquez and those in his vehicle also got out. The officer was carrying a rifle and a handgun. “Then I saw that Nambo’s mamba gunner was firing and the others in that unit were also shooting,” explains the officer.

“I got down with the shooting overhead and, as I’m not one to shoot wildly, I analyze the target and then I shoot. I was afraid they might shoot at us. I started to look for an assailant, but there was nothing. I couldn’t see who they were shooting at,” recounts the officer. Arriving last, some of his vehicle companions appeared as perplexed as he was. His vehicle commander was firing. The gunner was firing too. “They thought we were under attack,” says the officer. At one point, he overheard a conversation between the commander and the gunner: “The commander said to the gunner, ‘What are you waiting for, shoot!’ The gunner replied, ‘but I can’t see anything’. The commander said, ‘just shoot’ and he fired. He fired about three shots.” Neither of them is part of the group of accused officers.

The attacks continued. “I could see that everyone was shooting at the pickup truck in front of me,” he says, referring to the Chevrolet Silverado, one of the pickups in which the migrants were traveling. Experts discovered 107 bullet holes in the vehicle a few days later. “But no one was shooting from that pickup truck,” says Vázquez. This last point contradicts one of the aspects of the report presented by coordinator Vázquez Santillana, the alleged discovery of three large firearms in the Silverado. If they did indeed have weapons, why didn’t they use them? “Those in the rear units were also shooting, but I don’t know how many,” the officer continues, referring to his colleagues in the GOPES.

Confusion and finishing off

The most muddled part of Vázquez’s testimony relates to the beginning of the chase. The officer states that he heard radio warnings from the patrols that were leading the convoy, mentioning the presence of armed individuals. Yet he never saw them. What did Nambo and the men with him in the first vehicle see? Did they actually see anything? Vázquez also claims that he heard gunshots over the radio, before arriving at the scene where his colleagues were shooting at the Silverado. Were all the shots fired from the officers’ guns?

MEXICO-CAMARGO-EXPEDIENTE
Idalia Candelas

Witnesses to a portion of these events, whose testimonies are contained in the case file, point out that the chase and the attacks began next to the store at La Piedra ranch, a place Vázquez mentions in his testimony, just before he heard the first shots. This ranch, which is still part of Diaz Ordaz, is adjacent to Ejido Santa Anita, in Camargo, where the bodies of the migrants and the burned vehicles were discovered. Witnesses — three residents — mentioned the existence of at least a third civilian vehicle, as well as the two that appeared at the scene of the crime: the Silverado, containing all the burned bodies, and a Toyota Sequoia.

The three locals spoke of a blue pickup truck, some claiming it was a “cattle truck,” others that it was the kind used to transport livestock. Two of the three also claim that police vans were shooting at it, while chasing it. What happened to this pickup truck? Did its appearance somehow trigger everything that happened afterwards? Whatever the case, only the Silverado and the Sequoia remained at the scene of the crime. Vazquez recounts the events after the last round of gunfire of the first phase, namely one of confusion.

Once the shooting was over, the commander of the vehicle ordered Vázquez to go and look for one of the drivers of the Silverado, who, according to him, had escaped. Vázquez says he took a look at the truck before he went. “I saw movement in the cabin. I went closer and saw that there were only women, some were already dead and others were wounded.” The officer and a colleague went in search of the escapee. They found him a few hundred meters away, badly wounded.

They didn’t know at the time, but that man was Daniel Pérez, one of the two coyotes, originally from San Luis Potosi. According to Vázquez, Pérez was unarmed and bleeding to death. The autopsy concluded that the coyote was shot in the thorax, which perforated his left lung. Vázquez and his partner took the man back to the Silverado. When they got there, Vázquez says, they left him next to the pickup truck.

When he arrived, the officer observed several women alive and a boy lying face down on the ground. “Nambo ordered me to get them on the side of the truck bed, but I didn’t grab them, it was only through verbal commands. The four women climbed up on their own and the boy stayed there,” he explains. “There were people covered with sheets in the truck bed. I took it off and realized that they were all men, all piled up. Some were wounded and others were dead. When the women got on the bed, they said to me ‘please help me’. And I told them, ‘now we’re going to ask for support,’ because that’s what I was thinking,” he adds.

Just before officer Cristian Eduardo González García passed by with the gas canister, other police officers showed up with the other alleged coyote, Jesús Martínez, a native of Nuevo León. “The colleagues who were escorting him said that he was not carrying weapons, and that they’d found him hiding in the bushes. Apparently, he was the driver of the other pickup truck. They said when they found him, he was carrying a cell phone and when he saw them, he destroyed it,” explains Vázquez. “They started to interrogate him. I could hear the beatings they were giving him, but I couldn’t make out what the man was saying. I immediately heard gunshots and then I saw him lying face down on the ground.”

The rest is familiar. Nambo and the commanders of the other vehicles, some of which are yet to be identified by the Prosecutor’s Office, shot at the survivors, who were all packed into the Chevrolet Silverado. They sprayed them with gasoline. Then Nambo set them on fire. The commander ordered the retreat, in accordance with the coordinator. For some reason, they went to the police station in “Jarachina, Reynosa”. They arrived at 1 p.m., stayed for 10 minutes and then returned to the scene. “My role was to stand on the curve to ensure safety,” says Vázquez. “That day my colleagues picked up bullet casings, but I don’t know how many. Then they couldn’t search anymore because the investigative police showed up,” he says, referring to officers from the Prosecutor’s Office. The next day, they went back to search for more casings.

Along with telephone analysis, contradictions from the defendants and eyewitness accounts, Vázquez’s testimony is the most compelling evidence currently at the disposal of the Prosecutor’s Office. The officer will have to back up his statements before the judge and answer questions from the court. His responses may shed light on the more elusive parts of his story.

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