(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At least eight people were killed at Apatzingán, said Eber Betanzos, human rights deputy in the Federal Attorney General’s Office.
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.
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.
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.
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.