US honors head of Mexican police unit accused in killings

MEXICO CITY (AP) — A U.S. government crime-fighting recognition has been given to the head of a Mexican police unit that includes some officers who have been charged with the January killing of 19 people, including Guatemalan migrants.

The northern border state of Tamaulipas said Wednesday that the award was given to Arturo Rodríguez, the head of an elite state police force known as the Special Operations Group.

A dozen of the 150 officers on the force, known by its Spanish initials as GOPES, are on trial for allegedly killing 14 Guatemalan migrants and five other people, whose bodies were found shot and burned near the U.S. border late in January.

The Tamaulipas state government said the award came from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations unit, or HSI.

“The outstanding service that GOPES has carried out in fighting crime was recognized, along with the cooperation that exists between the Tamaulipas government and the DEA and HSI in fighting cross-border crime,” the state said in a press release.

The U.S. Embassy did not respond Thursday to a request for confirmation of the award.

The state government said GOPES is “one of the key units of the state police, and has highly specialized personnel,” and its officers have made over 300 arrests in the last two years, including “priorities among the leadership of organized crime groups.” It said they have seized 1,000 weapons, 1,200 vehicles and about $3.5 million in cash.

In 2019, prosecutors charged that the same unit, then operating under a different name, pulled eight people from their homes in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, posed them in clothing and vehicles to make them look like criminals, and shot them to death. The group was also accused of other abuses, and GOPES was created in 2020 from its remnants.

A federal legislator filed a non-binding resolution in Mexico’s Congress in early January to protest beatings and robberies by GOPES.

In November, a Tamaulipas business association charged that the unit’s officers had broken into a member’s home and stolen cash, other belongings and appliances. The group said the victim even took remote photos through her home’s security cameras showing uniformed officers with guns slung over their backs robbing her house. No officers were punished.

Tamaulipas has seen rival drug cartels fighting over turf for over a decade, and the cartels coopted so many municipal police forces that the state dissolved them all and began relying on better-trained state police officers. Then the federal government’s withdrawal of Mexican marines, who once provided much of the heavy firepower for law enforcement in the state, encouraged the state to create elite units like GOPES.

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