MEXICO CITY (AFP) — Mexican prosecutors and federal police internal affairs are investigating claims that officers killed 16 unarmed civilians in January, authorities said Monday, in the latest abuse allegations to hit security forces.
Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong spoke a day after a media report concluded that federal police opened fire on people wielding nothing more than sticks on January 6 in Apatzingan, a city in the troubled western state of Michoacan.
The report by prominent journalist Laura Castellanos, published Sunday by the magazine Proceso and the news website Aristegui Noticias, contradicts official accounts that nine people died in the crossfire of a shootout between police and former rural militiamen.
"We hope that the attorney general's office will draw its own conclusions and make them known," Osorio Chong said, adding that the police was cooperating and conducting an internal investigation.
"We are waiting for the results of the investigation and, with that, we will know what really happened that day in Apatzingan," he told reporters. The National Security Commission said Saturday that it had given prosecutors a video it received anonymously that appears to show "an excessive use of force or abuse of authority by federal police officers" in Apatzingan.
But the federal government's special security envoy to Michoacan at the time of the deaths, Alfredo Castillo, defended his January account. "I'm at peace and completely certain" of his account, Castillo, who stepped down two weeks after the shootings, told Milenio television.
He said whatever appears in the video was "probably taken out of context." Castellanos's report, based on 39 anonymous witness accounts, videos and audio recordings, said officers opened fire in two incidents. In the first event, the report said, officers shot at some 100 people who were demonstrating in front of city hall at 2:30 am, with some police shouting "kill them like dogs!"
The second shooting came hours later, when officers opened fire on a dozen vehicles carrying people who were chasing a police convoy, hoping to free their comrades, the report said.
Officials arrested at least 44 people that day.
The violence erupted as the authorities planned to dissolve Michoacan's "rural force," a unit comprised of vigilantes who were deputized after they rose up against the Knights Templar drug cartel.
President Enrique Pena Nieto's administration is already under fire over an alleged army massacre of gang suspects in central Mexico last year, and the presumed slaughter of 43 students at the hands of a municipal police-backed drug cartel in southern Guerrero state.
The allegations in Apatzingan could become a new challenge for Pena Nieto, whose popularity has plummeted below 40 per cent after the September disappearance of the 43 students sparked protests. If proven true, "this could be an awful case of human rights violations and impunity, as well as a lack of respect of rule of law and due process," Raul Benitez Manaut, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said.
While the government screens candidates for security forces, the allegation shows lapses in training police, he said.
"The problem of human rights violations in police operations is an issue of teaching and training, so they are not giving adequate training to respect human rights," Benitez Manaut said.
The January incident, he noted, came in the context of a "war" against the Knights Templar and the demobilization of rural forces. He said, however, that it was "too soon" to know how the case could affect Pena Nieto. — AFP