Another questionable incident in the pacification of Western Mexico

On Friday 22 May, 42 civilians and a federal police officer died in what, according to the official version, was an armed confrontation between members of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) and federal forces in a ranch on the borders between the Michoacán municipalities of Ecuandureo and Tanhuato, close to the main highway that connects Guadalajara to Mexico City, on the border between Michoacán and Jalisco states. Federal and state police forces supposedly went to the ranch because there was evidence that it had been illegally seized from its legal owners by the cartel. It is in a relatively isolated location away from the main local towns, although the whole region has for some years been a hot spot disputed between the CJNG and the rival Familia Michoacana and Knights Templar cartels. As a report published in Proceso magazine the following Sunday pointed out, this mass killing of civilians would have been the biggest in this area since the conflict between the government and the Cristero rebels in the 1920s. The press has published graphic pictures of the bodies of the victims strewn around the ranch main building.

Local people immediately began to express scepticism about the official version of events, and discussion is now growing about anomalous aspects of the evidence presented. Relatives of the victims told reporters from the international press that they doubted that they had been killed while engaged in an armed confrontation with government forces. According to reports published by the Telesur news channel, some claimed that they had belonged to a group of farm workers who had left Jalisco the previous week to work on a ranch in Michoacán, others observed that the bodies showed signs of having received beatings before they died, and there was talk of bodies having been moved and arms being “sown” amongst them. The authorities insist that injuries are consistent with being struck by bullets fired from a distance and that all the victims tested positive for having discharged a weapon. But given other recent controversies over the actions of the Mexican federal police and an army that is now routinely involved in police and public security operations, described in an earlier post, it is not surprising that the official account of this incident is being questioned.

Another cause of scepticism, reported by Proceso, is that one might have expected members of a heavily armed group like the CJNG to have put up a more effective resistance if the deaths had occurred in the course of an armed confrontation in which the criminals attacked the security forces after discovering that they were surrounded. A possible explanation is that the victims were killed while they were sleeping. Some of the relatives claimed to have been mocked by police asking what they thought of the effect that grenades launched from a distance had had on the bodies of their sons when they went to sign the legal papers necessary to recover their remains. My own past research on this part of Mexico shows that there is a longstanding tradition of overwhelming fire being used by police to eliminate ambushed or trapped opponents who are not given a chance to surrender. There are three survivors who surrendered, but whether their testimony will clarify what actually happened might be doubted in the light of a recent public spat between the Mexican government and the United Nations over whether the use of torture remains routine in the country.

This mass killing might be seen as the federal and regional security forces’ response to the mayhem produced by the CJNG earlier in the month, which included the downing of a military helicopter. The issue is what kind of response it really was.

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