Over and over again, migrants die while crossing Mexico. They rarely see justice

Injured people are cared for next to an overturned truck
Injured migrants are cared for next to the overturned truck in which they were traveling near Tuxtla Gutierrez, Mexico, on Thursday.
(Associated Press)

A day after 55 migrants who were being smuggled through Mexico died in a tractor-trailer crash, officials here promised justice.

“There will be no impunity,” said Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, vowing that Mexico would take “immediate action” against the human traffickers who had packed nearly 200 migrants into a truck that careened into a bridge in the state of Chiapas on Thursday.

Such a prosecution would be rare in a country that has shown little will or ability to punish those responsible for crimes against migrants.

For decades, people traversing the 1,000-mile stretch between Mexico’s southern and northern borders have suffered unspeakable abuses — rapes, kidnappings and massacres, in addition to crashes — and the perpetrators have rarely been brought to justice.

“Mexican authorities have generally failed to secure justice for violence against migrants, from daily abuses and extortion to massacres and disappearances,” said Stephanie Brewer, director for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Among the crimes that have gone unpunished were two massacres in the state of Tamaulipas — in 2010 and 2011 — in which criminal gangs slaughtered a total of 265 migrants.


And nobody has been held accountable for a 2019 crash in Chiapas in which a truck packed with Guatemalan migrants careened off a highway, killing 23 and injuring another 33.

Experts say such impunity is largely a product of the broader dysfunction of Mexico’s justice system, in which the vast majority of crimes go unpunished.

Corruption also plays a key role in the country’s dismal record on prosecuting human traffickers.

It’s common knowledge that smugglers pay off authorities at every level — from local police to members of the National Guard and Mexican immigration agents. Last year, more than 1,000 officials with the country’s immigration agency, the National Migration Institute, were referred to internal affairs or forced to resign over corruption allegations.

“The authorities are involved in human smuggling,” said Margarita Nuñez, a migration expert at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City. “The networks of corruption reach the government.”

A thorough investigation into Thursday’s crash would likely implicate not only the people who recruited the migrants and facilitated their journey north but also the officials who allow trucks crammed with migrants to pass through the immigration checkpoints that are omnipresent in southern Mexico.

“It’s almost impossible to fight against the machinery of human smuggling that involves the state,” said Daniela Gutierrez Escobedo, an immigration attorney in Mexico City.

Also contributing to impunity may be the reluctance of many migrants to report crimes or serve as witnesses against the smugglers they or their families contracted.


On Friday, Mexican investigators descended on the scene of the crash along with officials from Guatemala, where many of the victims were from.

Investigators have said that the truck’s driver was speeding near the city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez when he hit a curve and careened into a bridge.

In the overturned trailer, rescuers found a bloody pile of bodies — some alive, some dead. They told local journalists that some survivors limped away instead of receiving medical treatment, afraid of being captured by immigration authorities.

When he took office in 2018, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador promised a more humane immigration policy. He proposed funding antipoverty programs in Central America and expanding opportunities for asylum seekers to settle in Mexico.

Instead, under heavy pressure from the United States to crack down on a wave of “caravans” of Central Americans walking north together on foot, López Obrador sent thousands of troops to guard Mexico’s southern border.

Migration experts say the militarization of the border has forced record numbers of migrants into the arms of transnational smuggling networks that sometimes charge as much as $10,000 a person for the trip north.

“Current policies, which focus disproportionately on trying to block migration through detention and the use of force, only drive migrants to travel in clandestine, unsafe conditions like those seen in this devastating case,” Brewer said.

Packing migrants into dark, sweltering tractor-trailers has become one of the smugglers’ favorite techniques.

In October, authorities in Tamaulipas found 652 migrants, mostly from Central America, jammed into a convoy of six cargo trucks heading toward the U.S. border.

Last month, officials discovered 600 people in two tractor-trailers in Veracruz.

Cecilia Sanchez in The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.