TLAXCALA, Mexico.- Night falls on the tracks. A group of men in black uniforms and boots, armed with shotguns, are on patrol in white pick-ups. They make their way through the brush until they reach the train. They curse and immediately open fire.
Their targets are the migrants clinging to the wagons, on their way to the United States. Eight criminal complaints obtained by Univision News relate the same scene: more than 300 migrants have suffered similar attacks since 2015.
Several of the complaints blame the guards of a security firm whose operations are shrouded in mystery. The company, the Urban Auxiliary Security Guards of the State of Mexico (CUSAEM), is an entity managed by the government of the State of Mexico that shies away from state oversight and media scrutiny.
"We really know who they are. The patrol vehicles that operate in this area have lettering that says, "State Security Corps of Mexico," but they also operate as a private security force, with rifles," said Sergio Luna, who runs the La Sagrada Familia shelter in Tlaxcala.
The Mexican government, local prosecutors and the Ferromex train company are aware of attacks of the men in black, according to documents obtained by Univision News related to various meetings between authorities and representatives of the victims.
CUSAEM is a security entity managed by the government of the State of Mexico and was set up officially under the former Governor Enrique Peña Nieto, was is now president of Mexico. The responsibility for the attacks has not been officially determined and no-one has been arrested as a result of the criminal complaints made by victims. Univision News has requested interviews with the directors of the company on several occasions, without success.
Weapons and contracts
Documents obtained by Univision News show that CUSAEM has a license to carry weapons from the government of the State of Mexico to provide surveillance services. However, this permit is limited to public safety and not to private services, such as guarding the train. The services at La Bestia are supposedly covered by an agreement that allows CUSAEM to operate outside the state of Mexico. However, local authorities were unable to find the agreement when Univision requested a copy, saying they could not find it in their files.
Under these permits the Mexican Army has sold more than 7,000 high caliber weapons to CUSAEM during the last ten years. The company as meanwhile secured contracts with the government of President Peña Nieto for more than $200 million dollars, according to a database prepared by Univision.
Alleging irregularities, dozens of pro-immigrant group have publicly asked the Mexican government to inspect or remove CUSAEM from the train tracks. "The objective is to shoot to kill the people who use the train. There are migrants with bullets in the back, in the arms, in the neck, in the temple and no aggressor has been arrested aggressor. Not one," said Leticia Gutiérrez, general director of Scalabrinianas Mission for Migrants and Refugees, a nonprofit organization that has assisted victims.
"The company is still working, it still guards federal buildings, it continues to guard the train routes and there’s been no suspension, or even a word of caution."
Shoot to kill
Javier (he asked that his last name not be used) was CUSAEM guard on La Bestia. He says he witnessed the violent attacks against migrants and says his own colleagues were responsible. "In Celaya (Guanajuato) there was a response patrol that handled that (shooting) and torture. There were several shooters. I don’t know what they had in their heads, or if they believed that Central Americans were thieves," he said in one of several interviews.
Javier currently has another job. He confessed that sometimes the weapons they used to attack migrants were "dodgy" (not legally registered). Another guard confirmed the use of unofficial weapons.
One night of 2015, men in black uniforms shot at a group of Hondurans who were nearing the station where Javier worked in Guanajuato. As soon as the shooting started, one of the Central Americans fell on one of the wagon cars of the Bestia. He was hit in the back by 300 pellets of bird shot from a 12-gauge shotgun.
"They got me ... I'm dead," shouted the 37-year-old migrant to his train companions. He survived and denounced the incident to state prosecutors in Guanajuato, accusing to train guards of being his assailants. But the case has stalled in the court system.
"If I stay, they're going to kill me."
Honduran Pedro Rafael was halfway to northern Mexico in the early hours of April 4, 2017 when he came under fire aboard a train from the Ferromex company. He told prosecutors he was approaching the Apizaco station in Tlaxcala, a small state in central Mexico when several uniformed officers arrived in a white patrol vehicle, and one of them shouted: "I'm going to kill you all. Come down (from the train)."
When the man pointed his shotgun at one of the migrants, Rafael jumped out of the wagon and ran through the darkness. The sound of his footsteps on the stones gave him away. Then he heard several bursts and three bullets pierced his skin; the first one went through his collarbone, another was in his back and the last one destroyed his left arm.
"I kept walking and I started feeling hot, hot. Afterwards, I felt like I was seizing up. I could not breathe anymore. I felt very, very weak." He hid in a grassy ditch fearing they would find him and kill him. He walked for hours through fields until he reached a ranch where he got help.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports that every year 140,000 migrants make the exhausting journey across Mexico in the hope of reaching the United States. The migrants often travel on the train network operated mainly by Grupo México, a corporation that owns the Ferromex and Ferrosur companies.
Over 18 months, Univision observed that most of the engines, tracks and stations of Grupo México are guarded by CUSAEM. The railway companies did not respond to an interview request for this report.
CUSAEM also has a contract with the Railroad of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a railroad concession in southern Mexico, the National Migration Institute and the Foreign Ministry.
An informal Army
CUSAEM has legally purchased weapons from the Mexican Army. However, in response to a request for information, the army said it had not sold bullets to the company. Several train guards said that employees buy the bird shot bullets at hunting stores. "The commander told us: 'you know what? The boss gives nothing but money for gasoline. You must buy ammo a little bit at a time. Make a piggy bank. Get 100, 200, like that. You can share, two, three boxes between all of you,’" said one train guard who asked not to be named.
The guard spoke with Univision wearing his uniform. Months later, he confessed that the shirt he was wearing was that of a deceased companion, the boots of another who left the company and the trousers were not part of the uniform, but were a black pair he had at home. Most guards must buy their own uniforms and accessories, he said. Several CUSAEM offices have stores or informal stands across the street where items are sold, from a police badge to a bulletproof vest.
CUSAEM has an office for formal employees, who are registered with the Social Security Institute for the State of Mexico. The Mexican digital magazine Eje Central obtained documents that indicate that there are 40,000 uniformed employees registered.
Off the payroll, the corporation relies on another parallel army of guards. Univision spoke with one guard, who handles weapons despite not being registered with the company. He said he received his pay via a local department store.
The payroll for these informal employees is kept on handwritten lists, with their names and private account numbers. The payments are made in cash in Toluca, the capital of the State of Mexico, from other department stores located less than five minutes from the company’s headquarters, Univision learned.
The average train guard earns about $300 per month. Since they are not officially contracted they receive no social security, bonuses, vacations, or basic weapons training.
CUSAEM is protected by a legal arrangement that shields it from making public its financial operations, its internal affairs or audits. Proceso magazine has reported on several attempts in the local Congress to regulate the company, to no avail.
Officials for the State of Mexico did not answer a request for comment.
The Mexican Presidency also declined to answer questions about the alleged abuses by guards. Arguing that all weapons-related issues correspond to the Army.