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

In Ocotlan, Jalisco, locals called the government's raid of a cartel-controlled ranch a "massacre." Authorities hit the airwaves to deny the claims, but troubling inconsistencies hover over the case.

by Duncan Tucker and Victor Hugo Ornelas
May 26 2015, 5:50pm

EPA/Ulises Ruiz Basurto

"You said you'd come back to me but it's not true!" the bereaved woman wailed between tears on Monday, as she led the funeral procession of one of the 42 men killed by Mexican federal security forces at a ranch held by a drug cartel.

Clutching a photo of the deceased — a middle-aged man with brown skin and a moustache whom mourners referred to only as "El Blanco" — the woman walked directly behind the hearse, an ostentatious black-and-chrome stretch Hummer, down Avenida Madero to the local cemetery of Ocotlan, Jalisco.

The men killed at the ranch in Michoacan state were largely from Ocotlan, mostly young men in their late teens or early twenties.

'There was not one single execution.'

Authorities say they belonged to the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, or CJNG in Spanish, the violent group that ambushed federal forces in this same town in March, provoking a ferocious, two-hour shootout that left eleven people dead. The vast majority of the dead in Friday's incident were from Jalisco, and at least 25 were reportedly residents of Ocotlan.

On Monday, federal officials repeated their claim that the dead in the ranch killings were armed combatants who shot at authorities — and not victims of another possible government massacre such as those seen in less than a year in Tlatlaya, Iguala, and Apatzingan.

Mexican federal police chief Enrique Galindo and national security commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido hit the airwaves on Monday morning to deny the accusations.

"There was not one single execution, I can say that categorically," Galindo said in a televised interview.

Meanwhile in Ocotlan, some locals said many of the young men took off one day with offers for work, and promised to return. But further details were difficult to come by. A sense of fear and silence prevailed among Ocotlan residents.

Another 300 people followed the woman grieving for "El Blanco," including marching musicians playing traditional banda songs and almost two dozen tough-looking young men on motorbikes and scooters. One biker had tattoos on his face. Another wore a lucha libre-style mask.

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

The funeral procession on Monday in Ocotlan for a man called 'El Blanco.' (Photo by Victor Hugo Ornelas/VICE News)

Troubling inconsistencies are hovering over the case of the battle at Rancho El Sol, raising doubts about the use of force by Mexico's government against alleged criminals or even unarmed civilians.

All the men at the ranch in Tanhuato were armed, and all of those who were killed had fired, Rubido said in one of the interviews. "They were all shooting."

However, while 42 of those men were killed, only 40 weapons were recovered. A grenade launcher found, the police chief admitted, had not been fired. The three suspects captured there admitted to belonging to the CJNG, Rubido said.

Only one police officer died in the fight, which began after a chase on the federal highway between Guadalajara and Morelia. Photographs that were leaked from the scene showed some dead men lying face-down; others are seen holding weapons in one photograph, and not in another of the same victim.

The Jalisco gang may have received training from an established military insurgency.

Galindo attributed the lopsided toll to the superior training and equipment of Mexico's security forces, implying in statements that the gunmen for the Jalisco cartel were unprepared to use their own arms.

They was a "recruitment of some people that do not have experience in the use of weapons, maybe, although they were convinced of what they were doing, confronting the police, confronting the army," Galindo said.

That didn't sound like the Jalisco cartel that residents of western Mexico know too well. The gang has shown willingness — and skill — at killing federal security forces this year. Recent frontal attacks from the Jalisco cartel in March, April and May have killed a total of 32 army, federal, or police personnel.

Video shows moments in which federal security forces come under fire while at the ranch in Michoacan.

The group also may have received training from an established military insurgency.

Mexican news magazine Proceso reported in a recent edition that some US security officials, who remained unnamed, believe members of the CJNG, and a smaller group called Los Cuinis, have been trained by Colombian guerrilla army the FARC, although the guerrilla later denied the report.

Jalisco's public security commissioner Alejandro Solorio has stated that the CJNG received training from Mexican military veterans, ex-members of Guatemala's special forces, and at least one former US Marine.

Related: 42 Dead Suspects, 1 Dead Agent: Lopsided 'Shootout' in Mexico Is Under Suspicion

The grip of the cartel is palpable in Ocotlan, a lakeside community close to the Michoacan border, where the cartel has a strong presence.

Hundreds of locals turned out to watch the funeral processions, the majority speaking only in whispers, and avoiding reporters, watchful for cartel lookouts known as halcones, or hawks.

The director of the Jardin Getsemani funeral home told VICE News that several of Friday's victims were well known in the city of just under 84,000 inhabitants. Visibly shaken, the director, who declined to give her name out of fear for her own safety, refused to give further details.

"They're watching me closely, I can't say anything," she said, before being interrupted by the arrival of a woman whose two nephews, aged 20 and 21, were killed at the ranch in Michoacan.

"The only thing that I'm going to say is that it was a cruel act. It was a massacre," the grieving aunt told VICE News.

"They told us not to say anything, not even the names or the nicknames of the boys," she replied to further questions. Without explaining who "they" were, she assured that breaking such orders "would bring consequences."

One man appeared to have suffered a machete blow to the right arm. 

One of the few victims to have been identified so far was Juan Enrique Romero Caudillo, a 34-year-old man from Ocotlan who reportedly made a living selling scrap metal before telling relatives that he had taken up a job at the ranch.

local newspaper report from 2009 revealed that Romero had previously served in Ocotlan's municipal police force. In October of that year, he was one of ten officers reprimanded by the Jalisco Human Rights Commission for their involvement in the fatal shooting of a suspect during a car chase.

Two other victims of the ranch shootings were reportedly from La Barca, a neighboring town right on the border with Michoacan. In late 2013, police discovered mass graves in La Barca that containing 78 bodies, all presumed victims of the CJNG.

Prior to Friday's confrontation, Galindo said the gang had been moving between different ranch properties in the region, where they were selling drugs and extorting and kidnapping locals. Around 80 to 100 gang members had invaded the ranch several days prior to the shootout, although some escaped and others were not present during the shootout, he said.

Galindo repeatedly said initial forensic tests proved the 42 killed had used firearms. Initial tests also indicated that they were all killed from "dozens of meters" away, Galindo said, in an attempt to rule out close-range execution-style killings seen in the warehouse massacre in Tlatlaya, Mexico state.

But again he failed to explain other wounds visible in photos of some of the victims. One man appeared to have suffered a dislocated left arm and a machete blow to the right arm. The government did not release any of the initial tests to independently confirm their results.

In Ocotlan, while few residents spoke out, the belief that the government acted to kill the young men accused of belonging to the Jalisco cartel burned beneath the surface during the tears and songs.

"Like I said, it was a massacre," the grieving aunt said.

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

Follow Duncan Tucker and Víctor Hugo Ornelas on Twitter @DuncanTucker and @Hugo_Ornelas.

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