The small town of San Fernando, situated just 90 miles south of Brownsville in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, emerged as a symbol of the ferocious drug war gripping Mexico in late August 2010 when authorities stumbled upon the bodies of 72 South- and Central-American immigrants who had been bound, blindfolded, and methodically executed by gunmen on the outskirts of an abandoned ranch.
Following the grisly discovery, a group of reporters from the Mexican media group Hora Cero set out to tell the story of those killed in the massacre, migrants who risked travel through treacherous Mexican countryside hoping to make it to the U.S. Their documentary, De San Salvador a San Fernando: Una Ruta Nada Santa, which they premiered before a small San Antonio audience last week, tells the story of two such victims, Salvadorian immigrants who never made it past that deserted open-air tomb just hours from the U.S. border.
“It was very important for us to document the route these two people took from their homeland toward the U.S. … to relive their experience, see all that they saw, all those dangers,” said Moises Gomez, an Hora Cero reporter who traveled to El Salvador, Guatemala, and across Mexico to trace the perilous route thousands of immigrants follow to the U.S. border. “When we saw the story [of the massacre], we wanted to put a face to these immigrants.”
Gomez and fellow Hora Cero reporter Erick Muñiz tracked down friends and relatives of Yedmi Victoria Castro, a 15-year-old girl who left El Salvador to connect with her mother in the U.S., and Francisco “Toñito” Blanco, a 30-year-old husband and father who left El Salvador to find work in the U.S. to support his family.
The San Fernando massacre, which gained widespread attention, brought to light the routine abuse of South- and Central-American immigrants traveling through Mexico en route to the U.S. border, Gomez said. Human rights groups have long insisted Mexican immigration and law enforcement officials collaborate with traffickers to exploit and extort migrants venturing north through Mexico, and early this year Human Rights Watch reported that roughly 18,000 migrants are kidnapped every year while traveling through Mexico.
“One of the largest risks on that journey is once you get to Mexico, because not only do you have to worry about organized crime but also the authorities that are in charge,” Gomez said. In Una Ruta Nada Santa, the filmmakers detail how thousands of those migrants are kidnapped, raped, beaten, and even killed on their journey north.
When discovered last summer, the mass grave in San Fernando sent a shockwave of fear across the volatile border region, and authorities blamed the killing on gunmen with the Zetas, a feared drug gang known for its brutality across Mexico. Days after the discovery, details began to emerge from a Ecuadorian survivor of the massacre, who told reporters the victims were kidnapped by cartel gunmen and executed when they refused to work with the gang.
“This story was an illustration of everything that people fear on the border,” said Michael Lytle, a border security expert at University of Texas at Brownsville. “It was indicative of this imbedded corruption, and it added this terror dimension [the cartels] want to maintain. … People were shocked. This clearly showed [the Zetas] were hijacking innocent immigrants to be drug mules and forcing them to work or die.”
Since Mexican President Felipe Calderón ramped up pressure on the country’s drug gangs in 2006, nearly 40,000 people have died in cartel-related violence. According to a recent report by the U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, the killings reached a fever pitch in 2010, and drug-related murders in Tamaulipas spiked to 1,209 last year, compared to just 49 deaths the year before.
And since last August, almost 200 additional bodies have been discovered in mass graves scattered around San Fernando, deaths that authorities also tie to traffickers.
“One thing that has changed since we started [the film] is that authorities keep finding more and more bodies,” Gomez said. “I think that’s the unfortunate benefit that has happened from [the San Fernando massacre]. … Before it was something that all of us knew, but it wasn’t publicized. Now, we hope all this attention will force our government to be more responsible because people are watching.”
Given the widespread attention, Mexican authorities now conduct DNA tests to identify the bodies and notify family members — something that was almost never done before, Gomez said.
While their film makes ambiguous references to corruption and organized crime, the Hora Cero filmmakers steer clear of detailing the San Fernando massacre itself, a move that was intentional, Gomez said. “Hora Cero has put a boundary up to protect us from organized crime … We don’t deal with it,” Gomez said, adding that he and other Hora Cero reporters reference cartel crime only in a vague, “poetic manner.”
The filmmakers now hope to shop the documentary around the film-festival circuit, he said.
The San Antonio Association of Hispanic Journalists, Mexican American Catholic College, Catholic Charities Archdiocese of San Antonio Immigration Department, the PEACE Initiative, Media Justice League, Martinez Street Women’s Center, the Southwest Workers Union, and the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center sponsored the film’s private screening.