A new official version of events in Ixtapilla, indigenous community of Ostula

Michoacán’s state attorney has given a press conference in which he announced that the child killed last Sunday and other local people who were injured were victims of shrapnel created by the discharge of firearms by “persons unknown” and not by the soldiers confronting the protest over the arrest of the leader of Ostula’s community police and local self-defence forces. This version, seconded by the Defence Ministry’s Human Rights Department, contradicts the claims of the local people on the scene.

Reference was made in official statements to “conflicts in the community”. As I have shown in various publications on the region, intra- and inter-community conflicts have certainly occurred in recent years, mostly directly linked to the activities of organised crime and the complicity of state agents with criminals. Yet no mention was made in the official statements of the local leaders of the Knights Templar organisation who remain at liberty despite being named and denounced to the authorities on innumerable occasions. This group are responsible for the killing or “disappearance” of over thirty members of the indigenous community of Ostula since 2009, murders designed to eliminate leaders and provoke fear and disorganisation. Nobody has been brought to account for these killings. The same criminals have twice attempted to kill the now imprisoned autodefensa leader Semeí Verdía himself.

The “official version” has changed since news of the death of the child first broke and created a national scandal. The original response was that the military were obliged to fire their weapons because they were attacked, but fired in the air. Witnesses contested these claims. It was then claimed that the calibre of the bullet that killed the child was not consistent with a military weapon. But it now turns out that the forensic investigation cannot determine the calibre of the weapon that fired the fatal shot.

But let us suppose that there really were other “unknown” people firing guns in Ixtapilla. Who were they, and what were their targets or motives? What would such an incident tell us about the kind of security that the military and state police are able to offer to Ostula? It would, of course, be easier to accept the indigenous community authorities’ more plausible version of events, particularly clearly stated in this interview given by Agustín Vera, Ostula’s jefe de tenencia, to Carmen Aristegui on CNN. This new official version leaves plenty of new questions unanswered.

Statements by federal authorities, including the general who replaced the now widely discredited Alfredo Castillo as special federal commissioner for security in Michoacán, have made one thing clear. The same kind of example will be made of Semeí Verdía as was made of José Manuel Mireles. New charges are apparently being prepared against him, possibly including murder as well as extortion and trafficking in illegal minerals. This is, of course, what the Templarios who remain at liberty did (along, it appears, with some of the former criminals that state officials knowingly allowed to enter their new rural police force). This is why a majority of people in Ostula voted for the reconstitution of their own communal police under Verde’s leadership to tackle the impunity that organised crime enjoyed.

So the door is now open to a return to the status quo ante, and the Semeí Verdía case is increasingly reminiscent not only of that of Dr Mireles but also that of the imprisoned communal police leader Nestora Salgado in Guerrero. It appears that the federal and state governments lured the autodefensa leader into a trap by pretending to support his actions. It now seems that the regime behind the façade of official state institutions intends to crush all remaining local resistance (and popularly constituted local power) by whatever means are necessary, leaving the indigenous communities’ resources once again vulnerable to expropriation by outside interests backed by illegal force.

All this is being done in the name of a “rule of law” that the state itself has failed to institute in this region of Mexico. This situation has made armed self-defence forces seem like a necessary evil to a large number of honest and increasingly desperate citizens. Yet, ironically, there is ample evidence that Ostula’s communal police has sought to operate within the law rather than outside it and to collaborate with government institutions and authorities, despite the charges currently being framed against its commander in what seems likely to prove another act of grotesque injustice.