Federal authorities have rejected suggestions that 42 presumed drug cartel affiliates who died in a police operation at a ranch near Tanhuato, Michoacan were victims of a massacre.
The government says that a group of armed criminals, the majority of whom were from Jalisco, fired on a security convoy at dawn on Friday, 22 May.
“A pursuit began that led to the ranch,” National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido said. “The rest of the criminals inside the ranch started to attack the federal forces with intensity.” A lone federal police officer died in the operation.
The lopsided death toll and photos of the aftermath have led social media users to question whether the presumed criminals were in fact massacred after surrendering.
In one photo, a dead man lies in the grass with a badly broken arm and missing front teeth. In another, a man lies face down wearing no shoes and only his underwear, as if he had been dragged from his bed.
Some photos suggest the scene may have been manipulated. One of the presumed criminals is next to an automatic rifle but is not wearing the shoulder strap. Another is empty-handed but is next to a magazine belt in a second photo.
According to Animal Politico, witnesses said that most shots were fired from a federal police helicopter.
Enrique Galindo, head of Mexico’s federal police rejected suggestions of a massacre. “There was not one single execution, I can say that categorically.”
Rubido, meanwhile, said that all of the dead had fired shots.
“Of the 42 presumed criminals that died, every one tested positive for sodium nitrate,” Rubido said, suggesting that gunshot residue incriminated the dead.
Yet security analyst Alejandro Hope identified two problems with the government’s version of events.
“First, the photos that appear to show some bodies were moved. Second, they recovered fewer weapons than there were victims,” Hope said. “It’s very strange.”
Authorities say the presumed criminals were members of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, the organization responsible for downing a military helicopter and organizing a wave of coordinated road blockades on May 1. Officials have yet to release the names of the 42 dead, although most were reportedly from Jalisco, with at least 28 originating from Ocotlan, a town of 90,000 inhabitants on the north shore of Lake Chapala.
On Monday, May 25, funerals for the deceased were held throughout the town. Ocotlan has made headlines for drug violence twice in the past few months. On March 19, five members of Mexico’s new militarized police, or gendarmerie, were killed and eight wounded when they were ambushed by members of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel.
Shortly after the news broke of shooting in Tanhuato, the National Human Rights Commission sent a team to investigate the scene. Concerns of a possible massacre stem partly from the recent history of extrajudicial killings carried out by state forces. In the past year, Mexico has seen at least three cases of unarmed people being murdered by security forces: the army massacre in Tlatlaya, Mexico State, the Ayotzinapa student killings in Iguala, Guerrero, and the execution of civilians in Apatzingan, Michoacan.