Word emerged this week that Mexican government forces were likely behind a mass killing of civilians in the state of Michoacán, the third extrajudicial massacre by state forces known in Mexico in less than a year.
The government said it would initiate an investigation, but Mexico's former security commissioner for the troubled state called a journalist's report on the massacre "irresponsible."
At least 16 reportedly unarmed civilians were killed during a day-long standoff with federal police on January 6 in Apatzingán, Michoacán. The city is one of many considered a battleground between armed criminal and vigilante groups in Michoacán's "Tierra Caliente" region.
The National Security Commission confirmed that it received a video "in which it is possible to infer presumed acts of use of excessive force and abuse of authority" in the case.
But the story had already been reported in detail by journalist Laura Castellanos, whose article, first published by the news magazine Proceso on Saturday, significantly contradicts the government's initial claim that nine people died that day as a result of "crossfire" with federal police in Apatzingán.
According to the investigative report, witnesses said some of the victims had been shot execution-style while kneeling.
"Kill them like dogs," federal police officers reportedly said while opening fire on the group.
Members of an unarmed family were also killed despite seeking cover under their vehicle.
The government didn't comment further. But former Michoacán security commissioner Alfredo Castillo, who was removed from his post two weeks after the fatal attack, responded by vehemently denying the claims.
"They are lies, like, emphatically," Castillo said on Tuesday in a radio interview. "Whatever this journalist may have said is very irresponsible."
Castillo, who got another government job after his removal from the commissioner post in Michoacán, said he was "perfectly at peace" over the interior ministry's announced investigation into the actions of federal agents who were under his command at the time of the attack.
If fully confirmed, the Apatzingán killings would be the third massacre committed by authorities and officials in Mexico in less than a year. The list of cases has prompted major human-rights organizations and the United Nations to condemn Mexico's record on extrajudicial killings under the term of President Enrique Peña Nieto.
On June 30, 2014, Mexican soldiers in Tlatlaya, a remote municipality in the state of Mexico and bordering the violence-plagued states of Guerrero and Michoacán, attacked alleged members of an organized crime group who were described as armed men guarding a warehouse.
Twenty-one men and one woman were killed in the military operation.
The victims were reportedly interrogated, shot execution-style — blood spatters and bullet holes were seen at head-level along the walls behind some of the corpses — and weapons were then placed next to their bodies.
Seven soldiers have been charged in the case, which Mexico's Congress described as a collection of "extrajudicial executions" earlier this month.
In spite of the proven culpability of Mexican soldiers in the Tlatlaya massacre, Mexico's human rights commission has been denied access to the complete investigation file. The case file has been sealed for twelve years.
Three months later, in a case that shook the country, 43 rural teachers college students were picked up by authorities in Iguala, Guerrero, after municipal police and cartel members opened fire on buses, killing six people.
Mexican Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam said it was the "historic truth" that the students were delivered by local authorities to members of the Guerreros Unidos cartel, who killed them and incinerated their corpses in a ravine that served as a garbage dump.
A video version of the Apatzingán massacre report. Warning: content is graphic.
The Apatzingán killings happened in two incidents on January 6. The first took place in front of city hall shortly after 2:30 am, as a fleet of federal police stormed an encampment set up by former members of Michoacan's rural police force, along with their sympathizers and family.
The ex members the now defunct G-250 — a civilian militia that had operated as a branch of the rural police force under the command of then-state security commissioner Castillo — slept there to protest lack of pay after their unit was unexpectedly dissolved three weeks earlier.
Surveillance footage captured more than 20 police vehicles leaving the site, as people ran from the scene, hiding behind nearby vehicles to flee the shootout.
Little information has surfaced about what occurred in front of the government building, but according to the Castellanos report, which is based on dozens of interviews and recorded testimonies, witnesses said authorities were aiming to execute.
The report further suggests that the day's events were an intentional massacre by claiming that the federal police did not allow the injured to be transferred to a hospital in the state capital, Morelia, for at least seven hours after the gunfire.
For many, it was too late. The report alleges that nine people died in the first attack.
Hours later, a few blocks from where the first incident occurred, federal police sprayed a truck carrying a young family and several lime growers with bullets, leaving seven dead, including a minor.
As images circulated online following the attack, journalists and social media users doubted the official version of events.
Witnesses claim the family in the vehicle had been armed with nothing but sticks — which can be seen underneath and beside their corpses in published photos — and that the firearms pictured were placed by their bodies after their deaths. According to Castellano's investigation, authorities severely altered the scene after the shootout.
Images taken after the attack show the bodies lying in several different arrangements. Later images of the corpses show them lined up in an embrace, with boot marks visible next to the weapons and corpses, fueling the accusations that the area was not treated as a crime scene.
Video shows that at least one victim was still alive following the shooting, but was left to bleed to death.
After publishing the article — titled "It Was The Feds" — news portal Aristegui Noticias reported suffering distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, which brought the site down for more than seven hours.
Press freedom group Article 19 immediately called on authorities to guarantee the free flow of information. Additionally, the group called on the Mexican government to act in defense of journalists, "especially when they are providing vital information to the public as is in the case of Laura Castellanos."
Castellanos, the investigative reporter behind the article, has been the victim of intimidation, break-ins, and security threats over her decades-long career. In 2010, Article 19 included Castellanos in their journalist protection program.
Mexico's human rights commission called on the government to conduct a thorough investigation to "get to the truth" of the Apatzingán incident.
"We want to let society know what happened that day," human rights commission ombudsman Luis Raúl González Pérez said Tuesday.
Follow Andrea Noel on Twitter @MetabolizedJunk.