Killings of civilians by police in Michoacán, Mexico: Rights group
Oct.28, New York: The evidence in two episodes in Michoacán state in 2015 in which at least 50 civilians died points to unlawful killings by federal police, Human Rights Watch said.
At least eight civilians were killed in the city of Apatzingán on January 6 after federal police broke up a demonstration involving citizen self-defense groups, and 42 civilians and one police officer died in Tanhuato on May 22, when federal police raided a compound allegedly occupied by a criminal gang. In both cases, multiple witnesses reported that they saw police officers shoot dead unarmed civilians after the initial confrontations were over.
“Based on the available evidence, it appears we’re looking at two more major atrocities by Mexican security forces,” said Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas Division at HRW. “While the government insists that police acted appropriately in both cases, what witnesses describe clearly involves extrajudicial killings.”
The government response in both cases has been to deny all allegations of unlawful use of lethal force and portray the victims as aggressors. More than nine months after the killings in Apatzingán and five months after those in Tanhuato, no police officers have been charged for any misconduct in either incident.
A 19-year-old man wounded in the Apatzingán incident told HRW that federal police opened fire on unarmed civilians, shot two of them in the head while they lay on the ground taking cover, and planted guns next to their corpses. HRW obtained a written statement from another witness and a recorded interview that a third witness gave to a journalist that corroborated this account. A physician who treated injured people in the incident told the media in a recorded interview that police impeded the injured from receiving medical care, resulting in the death of at least one more person.
In the days after the shootings at Apatzingán – when the official investigation had barely started – the presidentially appointed security commissioner for Michoacán, Alfredo Castillo, claimed that most of the eight civilians who died were killed in “crossfire” by the civilians’ own weapons. He also showed a video that he claimed proved that civilians had attacked police.
The Interior Ministry later disseminated the video to Mexican media to support the claim that police fired in self-defense at armed attackers. Eight months later, when Interior Ministry officials were still using the video to support their “self-defense” claim, they met with HRW and provided a copy of the video. The video in fact does not show the civilians attacking the police, and the civilians it shows appear unarmed.
In the Tanhuato case, a human rights researcher whose identity is being withheld at his request conducted in-depth interviews with three people who witnessed the killings. The researcher told HRW that all three reported that, after an initial shootout, police officers had shot dead people who were fleeing the scene or were already in custody.
In addition, evidence collected by the Michoacán State Prosecutor’s Office corroborated that account, a journalist, Carlos Loret de Mola, told HRW. Loret de Mola said that he reviewed an official document, which had not been made public, that detailed the findings of the office.
Hours after the Tanhuato killings, Monte Alejandro Rubido, then-head of the National Security Commission, told the media that federal police were involved in a three-hour shootout with a criminal gang. Rubido ruled out the possibility that officers had committed extrajudicial executions, claiming the “superior training” of security forces explained the disparity between civilian and police casualties.
In multiple reports over the past decade, HRW has documented hundreds of cases of serious human rights violations by Mexican security forces, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture. Those cases occurred in 12 of Mexico’s 31 states, constituting a geographical and political cross-section of the country.
On October 2, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) released a preliminary report of its on-site visit to Mexico that concluded that the country is experiencing a “grave human rights crisis,” in which extrajudicial executions are committed with “endemic impunity.” The Mexican government’s immediate response was to downplay the report’s conclusions, claiming they were “excessive” and based on a small number of cases that did not “reflect the reality of the country.”
“Faced with evidence of atrocities, the government’s response has been to deny or downplay the magnitude of the problem,” Wilkinson said. “It’s the same dismissive approach we saw last year in Ayotzinapa and Tlatlaya,” he said in reference to two recent high-profile Mexican cases, “and it suggests the government still isn’t ready to take the country’s human rights crisis seriously.”
In the Tlatlaya case, government officials insisted for weeks that the June 2014 killing of 22 people by soldiers constituted a proper use of force during a shootout, until a witness account of multiple extrajudicial executions was published in Esquire magazine and a National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) report concluded that state prosecutors had used torture to coerce false testimony from witnesses.
In the Ayotzinapa case, federal prosecutors who should have opened an investigation promptly, instead waited 10 days before opening an investigation into the enforced disappearance of 43 college students at the hands of police in Iguala, Guerrero, in September 2014. Four months later, the Attorney General’s Office claimed that it had solved the case, but a team of independent experts appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) a year later found egregious flaws in that investigation.
The expert group, established through a cooperation agreement between the Mexican government and the Inter-American Commission, was mandated to conduct a technical evaluation of the Ayotzinapa investigation. President Peña Nieto publicly extended the group’s mandate in September. On October 20, the Federal Attorney General’s Office and the expert group signed a formal agreement that establishes guidelines for continued cooperation in the investigation.
The Oslo Times