Reports in the Mexican press indicate that security forces may have executed several unarmed civilians during a confrontation in the western state of Michoacán last week.
Although authorities in Michoacán say nine people were killed, there is strong evidence of at least 11 fatalities after the Mexican army and the federal police carried out an operation to reclaim control of the city hall in Apatzingán early on January 6.
Alfredo Castillo, the federal security commissioner for Michoacán, claims that the police only killed two people, while six others were hit by crossfire and one was run over, but several newspapers have published testimony from eyewitnesses who allege that federal agents murdered a number of unarmed detainees.
The confrontation began in the early hours of the morning when security forces arrested 44 people who had been occupying the city hall since late December and decommissioned 13 firearms and 23 stolen vehicles. The occupiers are believed to have been members of Los Viagras, a group of vigilantes accused of having formed their own drug gang.
According to Castillo, a convoy of soldiers and federal agents then came under attack as they were driving away the seized vehicles shortly before 8 a.m.
Despite Castillo’s claim that only eight people were killed in the ensuing shootout, graphic images taken minutes afterwards show ten dead bodies: two groups of five lying beside two different vehicles.
An anonymous eyewitness told Mexico’s Reforma newspaper that federal police officers killed at least three unarmed people who had surrendered and had their hands in the air. The victims “begged the police not to shoot,” according to the witness, who fled when two more military trucks arrived.
Local taxi driver Eduardo Murillo Alvarez said soldiers shot at his vehicle while he was carrying passengers, while other witnesses told Michoacán TresPuntoCero that “an innocent family” was executed by federal agents.
Video and photo evidence raises questions
One of the gruesome photos that circulated on social media shows a group of five people, including two women, lying dead in a heap, with no sign that any of them had been carrying weapons.
Another image shows five dead men, one of whom had a shotgun resting on his arm and three magazines of ammunition for a different firearm lined up neatly beside him.
However, disturbing video footage taken minutes earlier shows the shotgun lying almost a meter away, indicating that the crime scene may have been tampered with in an attempt to retroactively justify the killings.
The footage also shows one of the dying men waving his arms in the air, with no sign that any of the police officers visible just meters away were making any effort to aid him.
Castillo has said that federal police officers only shot dead two people and that the others were caught in the crossfire by armed criminals. To substantiate this, he told the press that the remaining victims were killed by .308 and 9mm-caliber weapons, “which the federal police do not use.”
Yet this does not necessarily exonerate the police, as it is not unprecedented for police officers to use non-standard-issue weapons. For example, the officers who killed six civilians and abducted 43 students in Iguala last September were carrying an array of illegal firearms.
The chaotic context of the shooting
Nestled in the volatile Tierra Caliente (Hot Lands) region, Apatzingán is a former stronghold of the Knights Templar cartel, which dominated much of Michoacán until being forced out by vigilantes and federal forces last year.
The area has become a flashpoint for violence in the chaotic conflict that has seen cartels, vigilante groups and government forces compete for control of Michoacán.
It is unclear at this point whether the victims in this incident were gang members, vigilantes, former members of Mexico’s rural police force or civilians who were paid by Los Viagras to participate in the occupation of Apatzingán city hall.
But the evidence points to the possibility that this was another case of Mexican security forces carrying out extrajudicial executions.
If the eyewitness accounts are true, then Apatzingán will join the list of recent atrocities carried out by state forces in the past year, including the abduction of 43 students by municipal police officers, allegedly under the orders of the Iguala mayor, in Guerrero last September; and the fatal shooting of 22 detainees by the Mexican army in Tlatlaya in Mexico State last June.