Mexican authorities said last week that a three-hour gunfighton a ranch in the southwestern state of Michoacan left 42 suspected drug cartel members and one federal officer dead.
Reuters described the incident as “one of the bloodiest shootouts in a decade of gang violence wracking the country.”
Now evidence has emerged that suggests the confrontation was not a firefight between police and drug traffickers but a massacre of 42 civilians by Mexican police armed with heavy weaponry.
According to accounts from Mexican officials, security forces went to the 227-acre ranch in the Tanhuato municipality, called Rancho del Sol, after warnings of an “invasion” on the property.
Once there, they came under fire from armed men, officials say. Calls went out for support and, with the aid of a helicopter, government forces killed 42 suspected members of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, arrested three others, and captured about three-dozen guns.
Relatives found their family members in a morgue with injuries that included teeth knocked inward, a missing eye, and a gunshot wound in the top of the head, according to the AP.
The nature of the wounds led the families to reject the government’s account.
The condition the bodies were found in — many were undressed, shoeless, and facedown — led Jose Ignacio Cuevas, president of Tanhuato, where the deaths occurred, to doubt the official version as well.
“By how the bodies were laid out, some of them undressed, this appeared more of a massacre than a police operation,” Cuevas said to Animal Politico, a Mexican news site.
Others have said there is no record of the police report that supposedly prompted the encounter, questioned why more vehicles were not seen at an alleged cartel compound, asked why no drugs were recovered, and balked at the lopsided nature of a confrontation with such a powerful cartel.
One witness recounted a different view of the clash. A resident of Puerta de Vargas, about a half-mile from the ranch, said, “I was watching everything and I saw as, from the helicopter that the police brought, they finished them all.”
The witness added, according to Animal Politico, that the people on the ranch “had no opportunity to defend themselves much.”
Puerta de Vargas residents did say that about 50 unknown men arrived at the property roughly two weeks ago. The men did not harm or rob the locals, but did warn them to stay away from the ranch and to keep quiet about their presence.
The activity on the ranch, located in an area of known drug traffic, remains unclear. Cuevas told TeleSur that the property had been abandoned until a year and half ago, when machinery was seen working and crops were being cultivated.
Families of some of the victims say that at least 25 men from nearby Jalisco state had gone to the area for work. Mexican National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido said the suspected cartel henchmen had taken over the property on May 18 to escape police pressure.
Preliminary tests done by government agencies have found that police did not fire from less than 200 meters during the encounter. The finding would seem to discount the possibility of executions, but not rule out that the government had fired indiscriminately from a helicopter.
These killings are the latest tragedy amid the struggle between Mexico and drug cartels and other criminal groups. Since the war on drugs was initiated in 2006 by then President Felipe Calderon, more than 100,000 people have been killed and thousands more have disappeared.
The incident at Tanhuato has drawn comparisons to other massacres committed by Mexican authorities. In June 2014 at Tlataya in Mexico state, the military reported it had engaged kidnappers in a shootout; it was later found that military personnel had executed 22 people.
In mid-January this year, federal police attacked a protest led by self-defence forces in Apatzingan, also in Michoacan state. Witnesses allege that police shouted “kill them like dogs,” as they broke up the demonstration. Federal police have since been charged for executing 16 people.
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