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?
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.