MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - In March, Daniel Trejo, a 41-year-old car mechanic in the Mexican northern border city of Nuevo Laredo, was violently pulled from his home at night by men dressed as Marines. It was the last time his wife saw him.
On Wednesday, the United Nations cited “strong indications” that Mexican security forces were behind the disappearance of 23 people in and around the city between February and mid-May.
The Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee (CDHNL), a group that documents accusations of abuse against security forces, has said there were more cases from that period and that if reports from January were included, the total would exceed 50 so far this year.
“They came into my house, breaking the door. ... They pointed guns at me and my husband, and when they saw that I was an American citizen, I thought, ‘They’re going to kill me’,” said Jessica Molina, Trejo’s wife.
“They took him without an arrest warrant, even though he showed them he was working all day in his garage in Laredo, Texas,” she said, adding that no reason was given for her husband’s arrest.
The Navy declined to comment when contacted by Reuters.
No official government source has confirmed that Marines were involved in Trejo’s disappearance or other cases.
Late on Friday, the Attorney General’s office issued a statement saying it had begun investigations into 28 possible forced disappearances in Nuevo Laredo’s home state of Tamaulipas where the Navy had been accused of involvement.
Mexico’s government issued a statement on Thursday that officials from the foreign ministry, interior ministry and attorney general’s office met with Navy commanders after the U.N. report.
The government said officials would coordinate with the U.N. human rights office, go to Nuevo Laredo to interview witnesses, find the victims and punish those responsible.
Over 35,000 people have gone missing since the government first sent in the military to battle drug gangs almost 12 years ago.
More than 200,000 people have been murdered in that period and the killings reached record levels in 2017, according to official data.
The administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto received international condemnation in 2014 over the case of 43 trainee teachers who the government said were kidnapped, killed and incinerated by drug traffickers working with corrupt police.
Only the remains of one of the missing students have been identified.
During the last decade, Tamaulipas has become one of the most violent states in Mexico, convulsed by gangs fighting to control drug trafficking, extortion rackets and the exploitation of migrants.
In March, 10 Marines were injured and an officer was killed during a battle with suspected gangsters in Nuevo Laredo. Three bystanders, including two children, died in the crossfire.
“The following days were horrible for the community of Nuevo Laredo because they started to disappear people almost every day,” said Raymundo Ramos, head of local rights group CDHNL.
Sixteen people reported missing, including a 14-year-old boy, were later found buried in mass graves, he said.
Over the past week, there have been reports of torture, kidnapping and death threats against witnesses of disappearances and relatives of the missing around Nuevo Laredo, Ramos said.
“They want them to stop making complaints,” he added. Ramos said he had documented 56 cases of forced disappearance and extrajudicial executions between Jan. 20 and May 21.
Family members blamed Marines for the disappearances.
“We want them to give our relatives back alive,” said Molina, the wife of the missing mechanic. “We are all afraid, but that is not going to stop us.”
Writing by Michael O'Boyle; Editing by Dave Graham and Richard Chang