MEXICO CITY—This week's massacre of 72 Central and South American migrants in Mexico highlights a paradox the government here doesn't like to talk about: While it complains about the treatment of its own undocumented workers in the U.S., Mexico can be a far worse place to be an illegal migrant.
Mexican soldiers on Thursday fanned out near a remote ranch about 90 miles from the U.S. border where 58 men and 14 women from Honduras, El Salvador, Ecuador and Brazil were bound, blindfolded, lined up against a wall and executed.
A survivor told authorities that he and his fellow U.S.-bound migrants were kidnapped and told they would either have to pay a ransom or work as drug couriers and hit men, according to the Reforma newspaper. Authorities suspect the Zetas drug gang was behind the massacre.
The killings have shocked the Mexican public, which has witnessed a string of atrocities by drug gangs, and sparked a national discussion about the country's failure to protect foreign migrants, despite its quickness to criticize ill treatment of Mexican illegal immigrants in the U.S.
Eleven Mexican human-rights groups issued a joint statement Thursday condemning the executions, saying they were not "an isolated act. It is a clear sign of how violence is growing against migrants by Mexico's state and individuals."
Nearly all of the central and South Americans in Mexico illegally are transiting the country in an effort to get to the U.S.—rather than looking to find jobs or settle down in Mexico. Mexican and U.S. authorities say it is difficult to gauge the number of people involved.
"Mexico—its government, its society—suffers from bipolar disorder on this issue," Miguel Ángel Granados Chapa, a columnist for Reforma, wrote in Thursday's paper. "We are wounded and scandalized by the conduct of U.S. institutions and some of its people against our citizens up north.... But a similar or worse mistreatment happens here to Central and South Americans."
Mexico's National Migration Institute, the government agency in charge of migration, didn't respond to requests to comment. Aides to President Felipe Calderón were also unavailable to comment. Mr. Calderón, on his Twitter account, expressed deep sorrow for the tragedy.
Earlier this year, Mr. Calderón and many Mexicans reacted with outrage to a new law in Arizona that allowed law-enforcement officials to check the immigration status of someone they has "reasonable suspicion" was in the country illegally. Mr. Calderón and others said the law was "xenophobic" and could be abused to target anyone who looked Mexican.
Human-rights groups, however, say Mexico's government has done little to protect migrants on its turf. More than a dozen Mexican rights groups in March presented a case against the Mexican government at the Inter-American Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States, arguing Mexico was systematically violating the rights of illegal migrants.
An estimated 20,000 migrants are kidnapped each year in Mexico, according to a study last year by Mexico's National Human Rights Commission. In as many as 200 cases, the abductions were carried out by local police or in collusion with police forces, the report said.
"In many cases, they are victims of federal and local authorities, especially those involved in public security, who brutally beat them, humiliate them, and extort them," the report said, adding that Mexican courts showed little urgency in prosecuting such crimes.
There are signs Mexico is paying more attention to the problem. One U.S. official based in Mexico City said he has given countless workshops to Mexican federal agencies on how to protect migrants from criminal gangs. "There has been a marked change in Mexican government attitude towards this situation," the official said.