Mexico Drugs War
Mexican federal police. Photo: AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo

A week after the bloody confrontation that left one federal police officer and 42 alleged gang members dead in western Mexico, several questions about the nature of the confrontation remain unanswered: Were all of the victims really members of a violent drug cartel? Were weapons planted on the bodies of the dead? Why were some of the victims barely dressed during the middle of a three-hour shootout? And why do some of the victims appear to have been beaten or tortured before they were killed?

The confrontation

One of the most violent incidents in Mexico’s drug war to date, the confrontation took place early on May 22 at a remote ranch in the western state of Michoacán, close to the border with Jalisco state.

Mexican authorities say the shootout began when 41 federal police came under fire as while investigating reports that armed men had been spotted at the ranch.

The shootout lasted three hours, with another 60 police officers and a Black Hawk helicopter arriving midway through the battle.

Three suspects were arrested and 43 died, while one police officer was killed as he tried to aid a wounded companion, National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido said in a press conference last Friday night.

The one-sided death toll and the absence of wounded survivors generated immediate public skepticism over the government’s version of events.

Rubido said it was due to the federal police’s superior level of training and equipment, but many in Mexico suspect that the security forces may have committed extrajudicial killings, which have been documented in Tlatlaya, Mexico State; Iguala, Guerrero; and Apatzingán, Michoacán in the last year.

Rubido claimed forensic tests indicated that all 42 victims had fired their weapons during the shootout, but he also admitted that the police recovered just 40 weapons, including a grenade launcher that had not been fired.

This along with the absence of wounded survivors  raised alarm bells over the fate of some of the victims, Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope told Latin Correspondent.

“There are still many things to be explained,” Hope said. Upon examining some of the images of the victims, he asked, “Why would someone not be wearing shoes in the middle of a gunfight?”

Was there a cover up?

The photographs showed one victim dressed only in his underwear and another man who had suffered a dislocated arm and what appeared to be a machete blow to the other arm.

Some of the victims appeared to be unarmed, while others had assault rifles and utility belts lying right beside them. However, in other recent cases, the police have been accused of planting weapons on victims’ bodies in order to justify their deaths.

The majority of the victims were from the town of Ocotlán, just across the border in Jalisco.

Upon receiving the bodies from the government, several relatives complained that the dead showed signs of torture. One corpse was reportedly bruise and had its teeth knocked in, while another was even missing an eye.

Many of the dead are thought to have been recent recruits of the ascendant Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG by its initials in Spanish), but some relatives claimed their loved ones were simply scrap-metal or furniture salesmen who had been offered maintenance work on the ranch.

“There are many doubts,” said Jesus Perez, an independent investigator of organized crime. “What if among the 42 there were unarmed lookouts or people who only carried out logistical tasks?”

The CJNG has been behind several brazen attacks on security forces in recent months. The group killed 15 state police officers in an ambush in April and then shot down a military helicopter and blockaded 39 roads across the region with burning buses on May 1.

Taken together, the irregularities in the May 22 attacks raise suspicions that it was another state-led massacre carried out in revenge for the recent string of attacks against security forces in the region – an allegation that federal police chief Enrique Galindo denied.

“It has never been the case that police follow a philosophy of revenge,” Galindo said.

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Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos announces that 27 FARC guerrillas were killed in a military raid on May 22; in response, the FARC suspended their unilateral ceasefire. Photo: AP Photo/Fernando Vergara

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) turned 51 this week, continuing their run as Latin America’s oldest armed insurgency, and the future of Colombia’s peace talks hung in the balance. In the wake of a May 22 military offensive in Gaupi, Cauca that killed 27 guerrillas—including FARC peace delegate Pedro Nel Daza Martínez— the FARC announced that they were formally suspending their unilateral ceasefire.

This was merely the latest instance of escalating violence in Colombia’s embattled southwestern Cauca province over the last several weeks, which included Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ renewal of aerial bombings on guerrilla camps in response to the FARC’s April 15 attack that killed 11 soldiers.

While both the Colombian state security forces and the FARC have clearly suffered casualties, Cauca’s most vulnerable citizens are also paying a heavy price.

Since the attack in Guapi, a city of about 30,000 on Cauca’s Pacific Coast, nearly 400 people have been displaced from their homes in rural areas, fleeing to the city in search of safety. At least 200 are children or elderly people, and all are Afro-Colombian—a group that already bears the brunt of displacement in Colombia.

“In Guapi we already had a serious problem with displacement due to armed actors that threaten black and indigenous communities who live in the nearby jungle regions, but the FARC attack has aggravated the crisis. Since Friday, May 22, displaced people keep arriving to the city,” said Sinson Carabalí, the Guapi city Ombudsman, to the El País newspaper based in Cali, Colombia.

At nearly 6 million people, Colombia has the one of the highest internally displaced populations in the world, second only to Syria. While 10 percent of Colombia’s population self-identified as Afro-Colombian in the 2005 census, at least 25 percent of internally displaced persons are Afro-Colombian, according to CODHES, a Colombian NGO that focuses on human rights and displacement. Actual figures for both are likely higher, due to limitations on census terminology, a long history of racism and stigma against identifying as Afro-descendant in Colombia and under-reporting and registering among displaced populations.

Read more: Caught amid conflict and police aggression, Colombia’s Cauca is in crisis

“We were hoping to return to our homes but now we have to stay here without knowing what to do, because with the bombings we can’t go back,” said Joaquín Carabalí, a 52-year-old Afro-Colombian resident of Guapi.

Along with the 400 displaced persons, an additional 500 people are confined out of fear of retaliation from the FARC’s 29th Front against the Colombian military.

“The population is really afraid because [the offensive] happened right in their neighborhood, which means that residents, whose daily livelihoods depend on agriculture, hunting and fishing, haven’t been able to do this. So that’s also generating a food security crisis,” said Mauricio Redondo, the Regional Ombudsman.

Redondo added that Guapi lacked adequate shelter, sanitation and potable water even before the crisis, and that the absence of facilities for newly displaced people is “the biggest challenge.”

Continued calls for a bilateral ceasefire

Meanwhile, civil society groups reiterated the urgent need for an immediate bilateral ceasefire to reduce violence.

“Today we insist on a bilateral truce and ceasefire that allows the deescalation of the conflict and that has effective verification and follow-up mechanisms agreed to by both parties,” wrote the National Movement for the Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE).

“This would be a real indication from both sides that they are interested in ending the conflict. We also demand respect for the proposals presented by victims at the peace talks in Havana, Cuba, for whom a bilateral ceasefire was a key demand. We cannot continue negotiating in the middle of hostilities, victimizing the civilian population and losing fellow Colombian lives.”

Indeed, the lives lost are generally those of the most socially vulnerable Colombians. Colombia mandates two years of military service for all males, but those who can afford to pay a modest fine are excused from it. Facing few other opportunities, youth without these resources are often forced to choose between the state security forces, the guerillas or the paramilitary-descendant groups known as the BACRIM (criminal gangs).

“Not a day goes by when I don’t ask myself: ‘Do the lives of Afro-descendant, indigenous and campesino communities matter for this country?'” wrote Afro-Colombian leader Francia Marquez, a native of La Toma, Cauca.

“I mourned for the death of the soldiers, because unfortunately they are our brothers, or cousins or nephews who couldn’t go to college or get a job, and whose only choice is to go fight a war that is not theirs. Many call it defending the homeland, but…Whose homeland are they talking about if since slavery until today the same 10 families who think themselves heir to the Spanish crown have held the economic power of this country and have shown no regard for our lives?”

A renewed commitment to the peace talks and a bilateral ceasefire would stem some of the bloodshed of the last few weeks, but given the myriad of actors and interests at play in Colombia’s conflict, a lasting peace will require much more.

“Peace will not be possible if there are no protections for the defense of human rights and no mechanisms for the participation of civilians, social organizations and social leaders in peace building,” wrote the Cauca Network for Life and Human Rights.

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