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Mexico's Human Rights Watchdog Says Excessive Force by Federal Police Killed Six

The watchdog said the deaths occurred following an operation in January to crack down on vigilantes in the city of Apatzingan in the heart of the troubled Hot Land region of the state of Michoacan.

by Melissa del Pozo
Nov 26 2015, 1:46am

Imegen por Rebecca Blackwell/AP

Mexico's national human rights commission has said that federal police used excessive force during a confrontation with vigilantes that resulted in the death of six civilians, including one who was shot on the ground while wounded, unarmed and with his hands in the air.

"Serious human rights violations committed by the federal police have been documented," the watchdog said in a statement released on Wednesday following an investigation into events on January 6 in the city of Apatzingán in the troubled Hot Land region of Michoacán state. "These are consistent with the excessive use of force that lead to the death of five people as well as an additional extrajudicial execution."

As well as the deaths, the commission said it had documented arbitrary arrests and the torture of detainees. It recommended criminal investigations be opened into all the violations and compensation paid to victims.

The report comes at a time when the Mexican security forces are already under pressure to improve their human rights record thanks to high-profile allegations of massacres — within the context of the government's offensive against organized crime —  in the municipalities of Tlatlaya, in June 2014, and Tanhuato last May.

Related: Mexico Denies Massacre at Ranch, as Families Bury the Accused Cartel Dead in Jalisco

The January 6 incident in Apatzingán — that the commission said resulted in a total of 10 civilian deaths  — began in the early hours when federal police and the army mounted an operation to evict hundreds of supporters of a local vigilante force who had occupied the city hall of Apatzingán. During that operation one person died, after being run over by a vehicle, and 18 people were injured.

The most serious human rights violations took place after dawn during a confrontation between police and supporters of the group who were seeking to recover confiscated vehicles being driven away in a convoy. Nine people died in the shootout, including six who were unarmed, according to the human rights commission.

The watchdog said it had gathered evidence that one of those killed was already wounded in the leg and lying on the floor when he was shot dead by federal police, "even though he yelled that he was not armed and lifted his hands in a sign of surrender."

The authorities have always denied any abuse of force in the Apatzingán events that took place at a time when the federal authorities were seeking to rein in vigilante groups that it had previously worked with to combat the Knights Templar drug gang.

Alfredo Castillo, the then federal presidential envoy to the region, said at the time that eight vigilante supporters were killed by their own side in the crossfire. 

Allegations of an extrajudicial massacre gathered force, however, after investigative journalist Laura Castellanos collected eye witness accounts from 39 people who said the federal police had shot at demonstrators who were only armed with sticks.

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

National Security Commissioner Renato Sales responded to the watchdog's report on Wednesday evening saying his office was "analyzing the commendations in order to take appropriate actions."

Follow Melissa del Pozo on Twitter: @melissadps