By Edmundo Velazquez
RAFAEL LARA GRAJALES, Mexico — An angry crowd in central Mexico attacked police and helped nearly three dozen illegal Central American immigrants escape from custody after hearing that officers had allegedly sold the migrants to human smugglers, officials said Monday.
Hundreds of people attacked police as they were trying to load the 34 immigrants into a van Sunday in the farming town of Rafael Lara Grajales, Puebla, state prosecutor Rodolfo Igor Archundia said.
The migrants fled in the chaos, but 21 were quickly caught. Police were searching for the other 13.
After being detained initially, the Central American migrants were allegedly handed over by police to human smugglers who held them for four days at a house. They escaped Sunday with the help of neighbors.
The neighbors then took the migrants to the mayor's office, where they waited outside in the plaza. Hundreds more townsfolk gathered to show support.
The violence erupted when a van arrived to take the migrants away. Members of the crowd shouted "Don't get in!" One woman yelled, "They've already suffered a lot! Let them leave!"
The van sped out of the plaza with only 20 of the migrants on board. The protesters chased the vehicle and hurled rocks at it, and police responded with tear gas.
Some of the migrants jumped out of the van windows. The rioters set fire to a patrol car, two motorcycles and a truck. Eight rioters were arrested.
State Interior Secretary Mario Montero Serrano said five police officers are under investigation for allegedly selling the migrants for $100 each.
Evis Casco, a native of Honduras, said the smugglers stabbed him in the hands until he gave them a phone number of relatives in the United States. He said they were hoping the relatives would send money.
"They tortured me until I gave it to them, but it won't do them much good. My family is poor," said Casco, whose hands were bandaged.
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Central American immigrants often suffer abuse and extortion while crossing Mexico on the way to the United States. It is rare for Mexicans to come to their defense.