The death of a 13-year-old boy who was hit in the head by a projectile during a protest that turned violent in the Mexican state of Puebla has led the state governor to seek a repeal of a short-lived law that allows the use of deadly force during public demonstrations.
The boy, José Luis Tehuatlie Tamayo, died from his injuries on Saturday after receiving a direct shot to his head from what activists described as a rubber-coated projectile during a community blockade of a highway leading to the state capital, also named Puebla, located about 60 miles southeast of Mexico City.
The teenager's death, 10 days after the July 9 confrontation between state police and campesinos near the town of Chalchihuapan, sparked a flurry of condemnation and anger directed at Puebla Gov. Rafael Moreno Valle.
The indignation reached as far as New York City, home of the largest diaspora of poblanos, as natives of Puebla state are called. A small group of protesters reportedly gathered outside the Mexican Consulate to demand Moreno Valle’s resignation over the incident.
On Tuesday, as gruesome images of injured protesters from Chalchihuapan continued to circulate online, Moreno Valle’s administration requested the state congress repeal the law his office had previously championed. The law’s intent had been “stigmatized,” the governor said, explaining his reversal.
Puebla’s “Bullet Law” proved controversial even before its implementation in May. Opponents at the time said the measure would open the “floodgates for indiscriminate police abuse” in one of Mexico’s most peaceful and socially conservative states.
Local police forces around the world have justified the use of tear-gas launchers and rubber-coated projectiles in chaotic protest or conflict situations, even though in many cases the weapons have proven lethal to demonstrators or bystanders, such as during recent anti-government demonstrations in Turkey.
During the December 2012 inauguration of current Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, several demonstrators suffered serious injuries after being shot by police. One activist lost an eye, and another man, 67-year-old teacher and playwright Juan Francisco Kuykendall, slipped into a coma after being shot in the head.
In January, Kuykendall succumbed to his injuries and died.
At least four other people were severely wounded during the incident on the highway near Chalchihuapan earlier this month, opposition media outlets said.
Reports said one man lost an eye and another lost fingers on a hand. In video footage, an unidentified man is seen with a gaping, bloody hole on the side of his face. The wound appears consistent with the use of rubber-coated projectiles or tear-gas canisters.
Activists and opposition leaders in Puebla said this week that the death of José Luis is the first fatality to be blamed on the implementation of the “bullet law.”
A highly graphic video hosted on the Facebook page of opposition politician Roxana Luna appears to show the child shortly after he was shot, as he apparently attempts to pull something out of his head. The child’s upper body is covered in blood and he appears disoriented in the brief clip.
Puebla issued a statement on Saturday saying that authorities do not possess rubber bullets, although the post added that Puebla currently owns 26 “simple” launchers, and 26 “multi” launchers used to send tear-gas canisters into unruly crowds.
Chalchihuapan townspeople gathered on a local highway on July 9 for a relatively benign reason in protest-prone Mexico — they called for the reinstallation of a municipal registrar’s office nearer to their community.
Locals argued that they have been forced to travel for hours to conduct bureaucratic business such as birth or death certificates since December, when an administrative restructuring saw their local registrar closed.
“You’ve already been offered a commission [to address the issue],” authorities apparently announced before the crowd blocking the highway, a video on YouTube shows. “You are now committing a crime.”
Demonstrators were given five minutes to disperse.
When the order was ignored, videos show police forming a line and marching toward the gathered protesters while beating their shields with batons. Shortly after, videos show tear-gas canisters being launched into the crowds, followed by frightened people running down embankments away from the highway, several of them bleeding.
But it appears that Puebla’s officials — or their supporters — are also actively waging a media war against detractors over the battle of Chalchihuapan.
Over the weekend, at least two anonymously sponsored videos began appearing as pre-roll advertisements before YouTube clips in Mexico. One video shows a wounded police officer describing violent threats from demonstrators on the highway, as well as slowed-down footage of protesters overwhelming and beating an anti-riot cop.
It remained unclear how many state police officers were injured in the incident.
An unattributed clip related to the Puebla incident began appearing before YouTube videos in Mexico.
VICE News attempted to confirm the authenticity of the videos and the group behind their sponsorship. A Google spokeswoman in Mexico said the company could not comment on specific user or client data.
Supporters of the Moreno Valle administration also appear to have bought the domain name RoxanaLuna.com, apparently in an effort to capture web traffic meant for searches related to the opposition figure who has most actively rallied around Chalchihuapan and the death of 13-year-old José Luis.
The site, which does not reveal its sponsorship, hosts clips criticizing Luna’s behavior and that of the campesinos who demonstrated on the highway. Elsewhere, leaked audio of a phone call between Luna and an anonymous man suggests that Luna encouraged the demonstration. At one point in the taped call she expresses satisfaction at the international attention the case has garnered.
Luna is now asking for an investigation into the tapping of her phone line.
The dead child’s mother, Elia Tamayo, told news outlets that in the days since José Luis's death she had been pressured by state officials to sign a declaration in which she’d accept the official version of events — that he died as a result of injuries sustained from a firework shot by the campesinos.
“They are trying evade responsibility,” Vladimir Chorny, a representative of the media-rights organization Article 19, which was intensely critical of the original “bullet law,” told VICE News.
Chorny categorized the law as a symptom of the inability of Puebla's forces to behave properly during incidents like those that led to the killing of José Luis.
“They are unbelievably incapable of fulfilling their duties of supervision during public protests,” Chorny said. “They should guarantee the security of all of the people who are protesting.”
Meanwhile, governor Moreno Valle, known for his slick-backed hair and toothy smile, has been avoiding the local press, and has not directly commented on the boy's death.