MEXICO CITY— In the security camera footage, a truck spirals out of control and crashes into a chain link fence at full speed. Behind them, an armed military vehicle pulls up and Mexican soldiers approach the truck, rifles drawn. The soldiers pull the men out of the truck, kick them and line them up against the fence. Later, the soldiers begin indiscriminately firing. Before the paramedics arrive, the soldiers stealthily place guns next to the deceased civilians and remove their handcuffs.
Mexico’s Defense Ministry would later claim the soldiers killed the civilians in the truck—alleged drug traffickers—in a bloody confrontation. But the supermarket security camera footage of the May 18 incident, which was obtained and published by El Pais and Univision, appears to indicate that the soldiers executed the civilians and then covered up the crime.
The video flatly contradicts the military’s version of events.
According to El Pais, the military’s report to the Mexican Attorney General’s Office states that the soldiers were disarming the men in the truck when more alleged cartel members arrived and began firing on the soldiers. The men in the truck, meanwhile, attempted to recover their weapons, the military claimed. The soldiers began firing back, and only after the shooting was over did they realize that four of the detainees were dead and a fifth was in critical condition before dying at the hospital.
The security camera footage shows that after arresting the men in the black truck, the soldiers appeared to bunch together, nervous about an attack, and fired across the road. It's not clear whether they were fired upon by unseen aggressors. Bullets can be seen bouncing off the ground, but it's unclear if they are from the soldiers' own firearms.
But even as the soldiers fire at an unseen enemy, one soldier begins shooting in the direction of the handcuffed men. One of the men attempts to escape, and a second soldier fires on him. The man stops wriggling. As the five detained men lay prostrate, a soldier picks up long rifles with what appears to be a red sheet and places it by the bodies of at least two of the men.
The footage is among the strongest evidence to date that the Mexican military has committed human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings in the sprawling border city of Nuevo Laredo, across the border from Laredo, Texas. A major border crossing for truck cargo, Nuevo Laredo has been wrecked by cartel violence and is home to the powerful Cartel del Noreste. Confrontations between the military and the cartel have become routine in recent years.
But human rights activists and Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission have accused Mexico’s military of going beyond normal rules of engagement and indiscriminately abducting, disappearing, and killing civilians who they suspect are cartel members.
At his morning press conference on Wednesday, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the video appeared to show an abuse of power, a practice he blamed on his predecessors. López Obrador has granted Mexico’s armed forces unprecedented power and has largely put the military in charge of domestic security in the country.
“Apparently there was an execution and that cannot be allowed,” López Obrador said. “These are isolated cases and when they occur they are punished… It was excessive force, violence, seeking to confront violence with violence. All this has to be banished, because it was introduced in the neo-liberal period.”
The apparent executions captured in the security camera footage are far from isolated. Four Mexican soldiers have been charged with homicide in the Feb. 26 shooting death of five unarmed men in Nuevo Laredo as they headed from a nightclub.
In 2021, Mexican authorities arrested 30 marines from the Navy’s elite-special forces unit in connection with the abductions and disappearance of 47 people in the city between January and June of 2018. VICE News revealed that at least 22 of the 30 marines received training from the U.S.