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Mexican Town Blames 12-Year-Old’s Death on Military Gunfire in Vigilante Dispute

Community leaders said Mexican soldiers fired indiscriminately, killing Edilberto Reyes and injuring six others in the restive state of Michoacan.
July 22, 2015, 4:05pm
Imagen por Juan Jose Serafin Estrada/VICE News

"When will I see you again, child — when?" a mother wailed on Tuesday as she clutched a humble casket in a small community near the Pacific coast of Michoacan, Mexico.

Inside the casket lay the body of Edilberto Reyes, a 12-year-old boy with signs of a gunshot wound to the face still visible.

Locals here in the municipality of Aquila say he is the victim of indiscriminate gunfire from Mexican soldiers during a confrontation with protesters blocking a highway on Sunday, July 19, amid ongoing violence in Michoacan.


If fully confirmed, the boy's death would be the latest in a string of damaging incidents of military use of force against civilians in the last year in Mexico.

The funeral for 12-year-old shooting victim Edilberto Reyes. (All photos by Juan Jose Serafin Estrada/VICE News)

Edilberto Reyes was in his house with his family on Sunday in the beach village of Ixtapilla when Mexican soldiers confronted a group of protesting self-defense militia members on the Mexico's federal highway 200. The protesters had blocked the highway at four points to demand the release of the leader of the local community police leader, Cemei Verdia, who had been detained hours before.

One of the road blockades was along a bridge near the tiny village of Ixtapilla, where Reyes and his family lived.

As soldiers attempted to clear the bridge, according to cell phone video footage of the incident, bursts of gunfire is heard, although it is not clear who is shooting. The villagers said the soldiers attacked the protesters, but a Mexican military general in charge of security in Michoacan said civilians shot at soldiers first.

Locals said they were unarmed at the time. The man filming the clash is apparently holding an automatic rifle.

Related: The US Military Is Worried It's Supporting Human Rights Abuses with Aid to Mexico

In recent months and years, the indigenous communities along the Michoacan coast have risen up against the encroachment of drugs gangs, arming themselves primarily against the Knights Templar cartel. Ostula, a neighboring village to Ixtapilla, is considered the first community in Mexico that organized a self-defense militia in the 21st Century.


Ostula did so in 2009, two years before the iconic autodefensa rose in Cheran, Michoacan.

The Ostula community police force maintained blockades on Tuesday.

At a press conference Tuesday in Mexico City, Agustin Vera, a leader from Ostula, also within Aquila municipality, claimed witnesses said soldiers or men inside the government caravan were heard yelling "Long live the Knights Templar!" during the confrontation.

Federal forces attacked, Vera said, "accompanied by two armed helicopters, destroying everything in their path with the luxury of violence, including several vehicles belonging to the community."

Felipe Gurrola, military commander of the Coordination Group in Michoacan, said in a statement that gunfire first came from individuals hidden in bushes.

"Armed civilians were the ones who attacked the authorities and other groups of civilians, which is precisely why the coordination group is here: to enforce the law, the rule of law and to fully respect human rights," Gurrola said. Soldiers fired warning shots into the air, he added.

Verdia, the autodefensa leader at the center of the dispute, was taken out of Michoacan and transferred to a federal prison in Nayarit. He faces charges of carrying illegal weapons, although many locals carry weapons within the ranks of the autodefensa organization that Verdia leads.

"They fired, hit anyone within their reach with sticks, threw tear gas, and detained any community police officer they could," Vera said in Mexico City.

Children carried signs protesting the violence during Edilberto's funeral. Some in town spell his first name as Hidilberto.

Besides the dead boy, six others were injured, including a six year old cousin of Edilberto Reyes, in addition to three young people between the ages of 17 and 21 and two adults. Witnesses also said authorities arrested militia members and confiscated the communications equipment.

Verdia spent four years in exile from his town due to pressure from the Knights Templar. He returned in February 2014 and was immediately elected leader by 1,200 indigenous Nahua residents of Ostula.


Locals blame officials for six forced disappearances there and more than 30 unsolved homicides since 2008.

"Through loudspeakers on their tanks, you could hear: 'Long live the Knights Templar!" Vera told reporters in Mexico City, raising the allegation that federal forces in the area are in collusion with organized crime.

Investigators surveyed the aftermath of the clash on the Ixtapilla bridge.

The incident on Sunday served as a reminder that Mexico's restive state of Michoacan is far from achieving the stability that had been promised by the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Splintered drug gangs have battled with federal forces and Mexico's military. In 2013, self-defense militias known as autodefensas sprung up in the agricultural and meth-producing state, further complicating the security scenario for Michoacan.

"The government doesn't give us any justice," Miguel Reyes Vera, Hidilberto Reyes's father, told VICE News. "The culprits should be punished, because the truth is, my child wasn't guilty of anything."

Related: Where Mexico's Drug War Was Born: A Timeline of the Security Crisis in Michoacan