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Allegations of Major Human Rights Abuses Keep Piling up for the Mexican Government

The US-based group Human Rights Watch has highlighted evidence it has gathered suggesting unarmed civilians were killed by federal police in two separate incidents in which a total of 50 people died.
October 28, 2015, 11:59pm
Photo by Rebecca Blackwell/AP

There is evidence suggesting that Mexican federal police shot and killed unarmed civilians in two incidents this year in which 50 people died, the US-based group Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Wednesday.

The group also accused the government of failing to properly investigate either incident, both of which took place in the western state of Michoacán — the first in the city of Apatzingán in January and the second outside the small town of Tanhuato in May.

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"Faced with evidence of atrocities, the government's response has been to deny or downplay the magnitude of the problem," Daniel Wilkinson, the group's Americas director said in a statement.

The two bloody events, the statement claimed, feed into a wider "human rights crisis" in Mexico already illustrated by the better known cases of the alleged massacre by the military of disarmed gunmen in Tlatlaya in June 2014, as well as the disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa college three months later.

"It appears we're looking at two more major atrocities by Mexican security forces," Wilkinson said. "While the government insists that police acted appropriately in both cases, what witnesses describe clearly involves extra-judicial killings."

The new spotlight on the cases in Apatzingán and Tanhuato comes at a time when the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto is struggling to convince the international community in general that it is taking allegations of widespread human rights abuses seriously. Both incidents have already been questioned by Mexican activists and journalists, though they have not had anything like the coverage or impact of either the Tlatlaya or Ayotzinapa cases.

There has been particularly little attention paid to the Apatzingán case that took place on January 6 after police and soldiers were sent to evict supporters of a vigilante group who were occupying the city hall. Eight people officially died in the events, though a journalistic investigation published by VICE News after it appeared in several Mexican outlets said the death toll was likely higher.

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Related: 'It Was the Feds': How Mexico's Federal Police Slaughtered At Least 16 Civilians in Michoacan

The government version claimed that the unarmed victims died in the crossfire of a confrontation unleashed by the demonstrators, and were killed by the civilians' own weapons. A man wounded in the events, however, told Human Rights Watch that the police opened fire, shot some of the victims while they were trying to take cover, and planted weapons beside their bodies.

The Apatzingán incident took place within the context of the government's efforts to crack down on vigilante groups that emerged to push back the Caballeros Templarios cartel, or Knights Templar. The government had initially supported some of these groups that then appeared to get out of control.

The Tanhuato bloodbath on May 22, meanwhile, is more reminiscent of the Tlatlaya case, only on a bigger scale.

It began when federal police entered a ranch outside Tanhuato believed to be overrun by members of the New Generation Jalisco Cartel, and continued for hours with reinforcement arriving including two helicopters.

The authorities later announced that a prolonged shootout, started when the gunmen opened fire, had left 42 members of the gang dead, as well as one police officer. Then National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido said the uneven death toll was logical given the "superior training" of the security forces.

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Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, however, said that there was an initial minor confrontation involving five or six gunmen. The rest, they said, either surrendered or tried to flee. The witnesses said that the federal police took some of these into one of the buildings on the ranch and shot them there.

The Mexican attorney general's office made no immediate comment.

The Human Rights Watch statement, meanwhile, suggested that the only way to get to the bottom of what really happened in both Apatzingán and Tanhuato could be an internationally-backed investigation similar to the group of experts from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that is currently pressuring the government on its probe into the Ayotzinapa case.

"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."

Related: 42 Dead Suspects, 1 Dead Agent: Lopsided 'Shootout' in Mexico Is Under Suspicion

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