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42 Dead Suspects, 1 Dead Agent: Lopsided ‘Shootout’ in Mexico Is Under Suspicion

Mexican military and federal forces chased suspects to a ranch, where gunfire erupted that lasted three hours and left 43 dead. The killed suspects are said to be tied to the Jalisco New Generation Cartel.

by Daniel Hernandez and Juan Jose Serafin Estrada
May 23 2015, 6:55pm

Imagen por Juan Jose Serafin Estrada/VICE News

It started with a chase around dawn on Friday.

A convoy of Mexican federal forces and army soldiers was headed toward a large ranch to investigate a property owner's claim that a group of "suspected delinquents" had "invaded" it.

The convoy detected a vehicle carrying unidentified armed men. The armed civilians opened fire on the convoy, then raced toward a farm called Rancho El Sol, on the federal highway between Guadalajara and Morelia.

The government forces followed, entered the property, and a battle began that lasted three hours, taking place at three different locations around the 276-acre rancho.

By the time the gunfire stopped, one federal police agent was dead. On the other side, the dead were 42.

That lopsided toll in what Mexico is calling a shootout in an area between Ecuandureo and Tanhuato, Michoacan state, is raising suspicions among locals, some analysts, and social media users about another possible state-led massacre of civilians in Mexico.

In the last year, Mexico has seen three massacres of mostly unarmed civilians at government hands — the Ayotzinapa student killings, the Tlatlaya warehouse massacre, and the slaughter of unarmed people in Apatzingan, also in Michoacan. These cases led to the United States military to begin doubting its billions in aid to Mexico's fight against the drug cartels.

Related: Where the Drug War Was Born: A Timeline of the Security Crisis in Michoacan

Michoacan police guard the area where the shootings occurred. (Photo by Juan Jose Serafin Estrada/VICE News)

The killings in Michoacan did involve weapons in the hands of civilians, but the heavy toll on the civilian side could suggest possible abuse of force in the government's response to the initial shots.

Mexico's Human Rights Commission dispatched investigators to the scene on Friday.

The incident happened near the border with Jalisco state. Both states have seen constant violence and crime related to the lucrative drug trade and the battle between the violent Jalisco New Generation Cartel, the remnants of the Knights Templar, and possibly other groups, including the autodefensa civilian militias that sometimes blur their lines with organized crime.

"I hope it's not true," said one Mexican security analyst, Alejandro Hope, about the latest bloody incident.

"There are two points. First, the photos that appear to show some bodies were moved. Second, they recovered less weapons than there were victims," Hope said on Saturday. "It's very strange."

Scores of military officials, federal prosecutor police, the Mexican gendarmerie, state police, and human rights investigators swarmed the property in the aftermath of the gunfire. The lack of official information for hours after the Friday bloodbath also led to doubting among residents and government employees in the area who spoke to VICE News.

A worker at a municipal morgue told a reporter their facility was not big enough to receive the bodies from the ranch, and that inside their offices, forensics investigators had seen the photos circulating on social media and concluded the state forces had probably massacred some of the victims. He declined to be identified.

Those photos, similar to images that emerged in the Apatzingan case, show some of the dead suspects with automatic rifles that fell a little too perfectly below their hands after they were shot. One of the photos shows a man in a pair of briefs lying face-down in tall grass. Other photos suggest some of the dead were moved.

Officials said they found 36 long firearms, two small weapons, one grenade launcher, and one .50-caliber rifle, for a total of 40 weapons. With three individuals under arrest and 42 dead, or 45 suspects in total, that's less weapons than people who were at the ranch.

Related: Our First Story on the Latest Michoacan Massacre

Military units also entered and patrolled the ranch after the shootout. (Photo by Juan Jose Serafin Estrada/VICE News)

The incident also came as Mexico is just two weeks away from holding elections on June 7. Candidates in local races have been assassinated in the states of Tabasco, Guerrero, and Michoacan.

Mayoral candidate Enrique Hernandez Salcedo was shot to death on May 14, in the middle of a campaign rally in the Michoacan municipality of Yuerécauro, which borders Ecuanduero and Tanhuato.

'Our country is not in flames, our country is not on fire.'

Mexican federal officials held their press conference on what happened at Rancho El Sol late into the evening on Friday, in the city of Zamora, Michoacan, some 12 hours after the gunfire at the ranch. They released little more information that what had already been circulating among local news photographers, reporters, and police.

National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido Garcia said the gunfire was so intense a federal police Blackhawk helicopter was dispatched to the incident. Three suspects were arrested.

Authorities did not say what criminal gang the suspects belonged to, but local sources identified the dead as members of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel.

The Jalisco gang is accused of downing a Mexican military helicopter on May 1, killing nine mostly soldiers. The cartel also carried out a brazen coordinated wave of narco-blockades across Jalisco and its neighboring states that day, affecting unknown numbers of people.

On Saturday, the bodies of the 42 killed at the El Sol ranch were moved to the state capital of Morelia.

Earlier this week, Mexican interior minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong attempted to reassure the country that electoral authorities and security forces were prepared to oversee a safe and successful election on June 7.

"Our country is not in flames, our country is not on fire," Osorio Chong said on Tuesday. "We have isolated cases that we regret deeply and we are working to prevent from happening."

Related: The United States Military Is Worried It's Supporting Human Rights Abuses With Aid to Mexico

Juan Jose Serafin Estrada reported from Michoacan. Follow @VICENews on Twitter for updates on this story.

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monte alejandro rubido garcia