A member of the state police stands on May 23, 2015 by a bloodstain during a search for evidence inside the ranch along the Jalisco-Michoacan highway in Tanhuato, Michoacan State, Mexico where 42 people were killed by Mexican security forces. 

© 2015 Getty Images

(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 today.

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.

While the government insists that police acted appropriately in both cases, what witnesses describe clearly involves extrajudicial killings.

Daniel Wilkinson

Americas Managing Director

“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 Human Rights Watch. “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 Human Rights Watch 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. Human Rights Watch 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 Human Rights Watch 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 Human Rights Watch 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 Human Rights Watch. 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, Human Rights Watch 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.

“Time and again, the Mexican justice system has proved unable or unwilling to hold security forces to account for abuses,” Wilkinson said. “It may be that the only hope for a rigorous and transparent investigation into Apatzingán and Tanhuato is to establish an independent commission similar to the group of experts who are monitoring the Ayotzinapa case.”

 
Summary of Findings
A Human Rights Watch delegation met in August with senior officials in the Interior Ministry; the Attorney General’s Office; the independent National Human Rights Commission; and a survivor of the Apatzingán incident. Human Rights Watch also reviewed recorded interviews or written testimony to federal prosecutors from witnesses, death certificates, and judicial files – including the declarations to prosecutors by 43 people detained in the Apatzingán incident. 
 
Human Rights Watch interviewed a human rights researcher who visited the scene of the Tanhuato shootings and conducted in-depth interviews with three witnesses. The researcher asked Human Rights Watch to keep his identity confidential. In addition, Human Rights Watch interviewed the journalist Loret de Mola, who reviewed an official report detailing forensic evidence collected by the state prosecutors office.
 
Apatzingán
In the pre-dawn hours of January 6, a large group of civilians were conducting a sit-in at Apatzingán’s City Hall. Many were members of local rural defense forces created in Michoacán in 2014 when armed citizen self-defense groups signed an agreement with the government to register their weapons and officially incorporate into local security forces. Human Rights Watch received multiple conflicting reports on the purpose of the protest, which may have been in response to potential government dismantling of the defense forces or aimed at pressing authorities to do more to address drug cartel activity in the area.
 
Excessive Use of Force Against Unarmed Civilians
At about 4 a.m., a large contingent of soldiers and federal police officers arrived to break up the protest. Human Rights Watch obtained the judicial file on arrests in the incident, which contained witness statements to federal prosecutors from 43 of the 44 people the police detained.
 
At least 10 said that police and soldiers abused them that day. Rosa Isela Orozco Sandoval, 20, said that, though she told officers that she may be pregnant, federal police punched her in the head, kicked her in the chest, hit her on the backside with a pipe, and dragged her across the ground. Another witness saw a pregnant woman – perhaps Orozco – being “beaten” by authorities. Juan Carlos Gutiérrez Segura, 33, told prosecutors that after he showed a group of soldiers that he was unarmed, they threw him to the ground and struck him repeatedly.
 
The police detained the 44 people for illegal weapons possession, dispatched them to the state capital, Morelia, for arraignment, and impounded 18 vehicles. The police formed a convoy to take the vehicles to an impoundment lot at the edge of the city. The account of what happened next comes from an interview with “Alejandro,” a 19-year-old member of a local community defense force who asked not to be identified; written declarations to federal prosecutors by Gonzalo Alfonso Castillo Sánchez, a 16-year-old son of a lemon-farm worker; and the statement of another survivor recorded by a journalist.  
 
Alejandro told Human Rights Watch that early in the morning of January 6, he received a radio dispatch that some fellow members of self-defense groups in Michoacán had been injured when policemen and soldiers broke up the city hall protest. At about 6 a.m. he met with a group of about 100 people on the outskirts of the city, and they headed in 20 trucks toward the lot where they thought police were holding the confiscated cars.
 
Their goal, said Alejandro and the witness on the recording, was to find their wounded companions, whom they believed were in police custody. All three witnesses said that as far they knew, nobody in the trucks had firearms, but only sticks and clubs.
 
On Avenida Constitución, a major street, the group encountered between 20 and 25 federal police vehicles, two of them parked at 45-degree angles to block the street, Alejandro said. The group stopped their trucks and approached the police vehicles on foot. The police then opened fire without warning, Alejandro and Gonzalo said.
 
Alejandro said he was shot six times – on his left shoulder, twice in the foot, right calf, and twice in the left leg – before he was able to retreat beneath a truck, where he hid between the tires. He showed Human Rights Watch the wounds on his shoulder and leg, as well as tiny metal shards that remain lodged in his scalp.
 
Unlawful Killings by Police
Alejandro told Human Rights Watch that, after the shooting died down, he saw police officers pull Miguel Ángel Madrigal Marmolejo from beneath a truck and shoot him in the head. Another man, whose name Alejandro did not know, was lying injured on the ground when an officer ordered him to his knees. A police officer then shot him in the head and placed his dead body in the driver’s seat of one of the trucks, Alejandro said. Gonzalo told federal prosecutors that he saw police officers shoot two civilians in the head. In a recorded interview, the third witness said that police dragged people out from beneath a truck and shot them dead.
 
Alejandro said that a police officer pulled him out from under the truck, stepped on the bullet wound on his shoulder, and placed a gun to his head. Alejandro was saved, he said, by another federal police officer who told the first not to shoot because people from neighboring houses had begun filming. As Alejandro lay bleeding he saw police plant guns on and around his injured and dead companions. 
 
Gonzalo said in his statement that he was hit in the head by a bullet and that police officers placed a shotgun and a magazine next to him as he lay bleeding.  
 
Police Interference With Medical Care
Human Rights Watch obtained credible evidence that police prevented those injured in Apatzingán from receiving medical care, resulting in the death of at least one person. Alejandro said that police stopped ambulances from approaching the scene and aiding the injured victims. The witness on the recording said that he lay bleeding for approximately 90 minutes after the shooting while federal police did nothing to help him.  
 
An Apatzingán doctor told a journalist in a recorded interview obtained by Human Rights Watch that federal police officers prevented medical staff from transporting a victim in critical condition from one hospital in Apatzingán to another in Morelia that was better equipped to treat him. The transfer was delayed by seven hours, during which the patient bled profusely, the doctor said. The patient died in an ambulance on the way to Morelia.
 
Alejandro was eventually taken by ambulance and remained hospitalized for four weeks. He said that he has a metal plate in his shoulder and lost significant vision in his right eye because of his injuries. Gonzalo lost his right eye. 
 
The Official Account
At least eight people were killed at Apatzingán, said Eber Betanzos, human rights deputy in the Federal Attorney General’s Office.
 
The Attorney General’s Office opened an investigation into the Apatzingán confrontation on January 7, the day after the incidents. The same day – as the investigation had barely begun – Alfredo Castillo, the Michaocán security commissioner appointed by the president, who is not affiliated with the Attorney General’s Office, told the media in a news conference that all but two of the civilians in Apatzingán were killed in “crossfire” by firearms held by the civilians themselves. Castillo claimed that the two civilians shot by the police had also been shot by other civilians, and that it was “impossible to determine” who was responsible for their deaths.
 
At the news conference and in the months following, Castillo and Interior Ministry officials distributed to news outlets and nongovernmental groups security-camera footage in an attempt to demonstrate that civilians had attacked the federal police officers, and that the police had acted in legitimate defense of their lives.
 
Seven months after the incident, in a meeting with Human Rights Watch in Mexico City, interior ministry officials including Roberto Campa, undersecretary for human rights, conceded that 12 officers were shown by ballistics evidence to have fired their weapons during the incident.
 
Campa provided Human Rights Watch a copy of the video that officials had been saying for months cleared the officers of wrongdoing because they said it shows an armed mob attacking the officers. The footage, however, does not show any confrontation between civilians and the police.
 
A convoy of approximately 20 federal police vehicles is seen transporting impounded vehicles down Avenida Constitución at approximately 7:40 a.m. on January 6. At 7:46 a.m., six pick-up trucks are seen approaching the convoy. Approximately two dozen people descend from the trucks and run forward out of the frame, presumably toward the police. Seconds later, the same people flee into the background. None of the civilians is carrying a firearm – a detail an official from the Interior Ministry who was showing the video confirmed to Human Rights Watch.
 
By the time of the Human Rights Watch meetings with government officials in August, the Mexican media had been reporting on the Apatzingán shootings for almost four months. On April 20, the day after the first of a series of reports by Laura Castellanos in Proceso, Aristegui Noticias, and Univisión that police officers had killed unarmed civilians in the street, Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong publicly asked the Attorney General’s Office to investigate allegations of excessive use of force or abuse of authority.
 
In August, Betanzos, the human rights deputy in the Federal Attorney General’s Office – the body conducting the investigation – told Human Rights Watch that there were “no elements” to warrant charging any officers for alleged abuses in Apatzingán. He refused to provide more information, saying he could not share details about a current investigation.
 
Tanhuato
On May 22, federal police raided the El Sol Ranch in the municipality of Tanhuato, Michoacán; 42 civilians and one police officer were killed. Roberto Campa, undersecretary for human rights at the Interior Ministry, the parent ministry of the federal police, said the civilians were members of a criminal gang from the neighboring state of Jalisco who were unlawfully occupying the property. Three were arrested and detained in a federal prison on charges of organized crime.
 
The State Prosecutor’s Office in Michoacán carried out the initial investigation into the episode. Because the confrontation involved federal police officers and accusations of grave human rights abuses, and the three survivors were arrested for organized crime – a federal offense; the Attorney General’s Office should have had immediate jurisdiction over the case, and promptly opened an investigation. But it did not assume responsibility for the investigation until August, three months later.  
 
Unlawful Killings by Police
A human rights researcher, who requested anonymity, told Human Rights Watch that he interviewed three surviving civilians who said that, while a few civilians engaged in an initial shootout with police in front of the house, many others dropped their weapons and did not fire back, and that at least five who attempted to flee into fields toward the back of the house were shot in the back by police. All three witnesses, who were arrested in the incident, said that federal police forced them to shoot weapons into the ground after their arrest, so that their hands would test positive for gunpowder residue. 
 
The witnesses said that federal police officers brought seven people into the main ranchhouse after the initial gunfight had subsided, and killed four of them, the researcher interviewed by Human Rights Watch said. One was placed against a wall and shot; one was shot on the stairs; one was shot in the back while running away; and one was burned inside a warehouse adjacent to the house. The witness accounts were consistent, the researcher said. 
 
In a column published in August, Loret de Mola reported that the initial investigation by the Michoacán State Prosector’s Office into the Tanhuato incident contained evidence that supported the conclusion that federal police had killed multiple unarmed civilians after the raid.
 
Human Rights Watch interviewed Loret de Mola, who provided a detailed account of an 80-page official summary of the judicial file on the case that included photos of 43 corpses, ballistics results, and key witness testimony. He did not reveal who provided him with access to the summary.
 
By Loret de Mola’s account, the report indicated that 23 of the bodies had wounds “not consistent with a shootout” and at least a dozen had multiple gunshots to the back fired from a short distance. Thirty of the 42 weapons the police seized at the scene had not been fired, throwing further doubt on the police claim that they acted entirely in self-defense. Photographs of the corpses, with wounds consistent with the witness accounts, were included in the report, Loret de Mola said.
 
The Official Account
Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong told Human Rights Watch that federal police officers had been deployed to Tanhuato to investigate a complaint that armed criminals had commandeered a private ranch.
 
Monte Alejandro Rubido, then head of the National Security Commission – an agency within the Interior Ministry – told the media the day of the killings that as the police convoy approached the area an armed group in a truck began to fire at the police, and then fled to the ranch, leading the police to the scene. Police officers were met with gunfire upon arriving at the compound and about 60 additional officers were subsequently sent to the scene, including several who shot at the ranch from a helicopter. The shootout lasted three hours, Rubido said.
 
In a news conference, Rubido expressly denied that officers had committed extrajudicial executions, claiming that all shots were fired from a considerable distance from where the bodies were found. Rubido claimed that the fact that 42 civilians were killed, while only one police officer died, was the result of the “superior training” of the police.
 
Accountability
In a meeting on August 17, Betanzos, the Attorney General’s Office human rights deputy, told Human Rights Watch that the investigation was in the hands of the State Attorney General’s Office and that he was unable to provide any substantive information on the case, given that the investigation was still open. On August 22, Campa, the Interior Ministry undersecretary for human rights, informed Human Rights Watch that the Federal Attorney General had taken over the investigation into the Tanhuato incident.