MEXICO CITY – A group of Central American migrants recently rescued from kidnappers in northern Mexico has accused immigration agents of pulling them from a bus and handing them over to criminal gangs, public defenders said Monday.
The federal government said at least six agents from the National Institute for Migration had been arrested in the case.
The Central Americans were among 120 migrants from various countries who were freed by Mexicans soldiers in several raids over the past month in the northern state of Tamaulipas.
The migrants picked out the immigration officials from photographs shown to them by federal investigators, said Alejandro Roldan Velasquez, the director of the Federal Institute of Public Defenders, which is representing the migrants.
"These people identified some agents as accomplices of the crime," Roldan told The Associated Press. "They were shown photographs of immigration agents and they identified them."
The public defenders institute has been advising all 120 migrants under a new anti-kidnapping law that took effect in February, requiring that all kidnapping victims be provided with free legal assistance.
The migrants — 81 Mexicans, 33 Central Americans and six Chinese nationals presumably trying to reach the United States — were being held hostage at different houses in northern Tamaulipas, which borders Texas.
In a statement last month, the federal government announced the arrest of six immigration agents in Tamaulipas for "federal crimes." Alejandro Poire, the government spokesman for security issues, confirmed at a news conference Monday that those agents were arrested in the case of the kidnapped migrants, although he provided no details on their alleged role.
"We must emphasize that there will be zero tolerance of anyone who calls themselves a civil servant and breaks the law or participates in these crimes," Poire said.
The Mexican Attorney General's office said in a statement that the six detained agents are suspected of kidnapping at least four migrants.
Federal security forces last month also discovered 40 clandestine graves in Tamaulipas containing 183 bodies. Investigators suspect many of the victims were pulled from buses by the Zetas drug gang, which has been kidnapping both Mexicans and foreign migrants to demand extortion money or forcibly recruit them.
Several Tamaulipas municipal police officers have been arrested for allegedly playing a role in the mass killings. Poire said investigators would determine if any immigration agents were also involved.
Roldan would not say how many agents were identified by the migrants. He also declined to say how many migrants accused agents of involvement, saying he could not provide more details about an investigation that is still in progress.
Officials from the National Institute for Migration and the Attorney General's Office declined to comment, saying they were preparing a joint statement.
The public defenders institute said in its statement that the migrants who identified the immigration officers were all Central Americans. They are being held at secret locations under custody of the Attorney General's Office because it was too risky to send them to migrant detention centers after they identified the immigration agents, the statement said.
Roldan said at least four of the rescued migrants had been repatriated to Central America at their own request. Others are seeking humanitarian visas that would allow them to stay in Mexico.
Mexican police and immigration agents have long been known to be involved in shaking down and kidnapping Central American migrants traveling along dangerous routes through Mexico to the United States.
The plight of migrants, however, has taken horrific proportions as Mexico's drug war rages.
In August 2010, 72 Central American migrants were found massacred at a ranch in the Tamaulipas town of San Fernando, allegedly because they refused to work for the Zetas drug gang that controls much of the state.
The mass pits unearthed last month were also near San Fernando, but it's unclear how many of the victims were migrants. Authorities have so far identified only five of the bodies, one of whom was a Guatemalan national.
The Interior Department has said the National Institute for Migration launched an aggressive effort to root out corrupt agents in September. At least 168 of the institute's 5,000 employees have been suspended or fired for violating the rights of migrants, according to the department.
In January, officials told AP that the government planned a shake-up of the agency that would include the dismissal of several top directors and the reform of practices that have led to mistakes and corruption. No such shake-up has occurred.
Associated Press writer E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City contributed to this report.