The victims of some of the biggest recent massacres in Mexico’s drug war appear to have been innocents, selected at random and used as props by criminal groups in order to “send a message.” Borderland Beat sets out the evidence.

It was September 2011, in Boca del Rio, Veracruz. Amid rush hour traffic, adjacent to the World Trade Center and Plaza of the Americas, a gruesome sight was laid before an overpass: 35 bloody, bound, nude or semi-nude corpses had been thrown on the pavement of Adolfo Ruiz Blvd.

The victims all bore signs of extreme torture. Painted on each of their bodies were the words “Por Z” (by the Zetas). The majority had died of asphyxiation, a few by blunt trauma and one by gunshots to the head.

The gunmen hung two banners declaring the dead were from the Zetas. One of them read:

This will happen to all the Zeta [expletive] that stay in Veracruz, the plaza has a new owner GN [Gente Nueva]. Here lies Ferras and his royal court.

Within hours, and much too quickly for the comfort of those familiar with the workings of an investigation, Veracruz Attorney General Renaldo Escobar Perez announced that most of the bodies had been identified and all had connections to organized crime, and records of serious crimes, including kidnapping, murder, and drug trafficking.

The governor of Veracruz, Javier Duarte, wasted no time reaching out via social networks, Twitter and Facebook declaring the same as the attorney general. Ironically, Duarte, of the PRI party, had previously threatened to imprison anyone who sends out erroneous info via Twitter or any social network.

Months later the truth would be revealed, that in fact none of the dead had ties to organized crime and almost none had records of serious crimes. Six had records of minor offenses, such as fighting or stealing, and one was suspected of a serious offense which had no link to organized crime.

Jose Cuitlahuac Salinas Martinez, then deputy attorney general, now the head of the organized crime division of SIEDO (the attorney general’s organized crime division), quietly waited until the investigation was complete before reporting that the victims were “not of organized crime,” and most were “without a criminal history”.

In an interview with Joaquin Lopez Doriga, Salinas reiterated twice that the dead were not found to have cartel connections. Lopez pressed further by asking, “Both Governor Duarte and the then-attorney general stated that the 35 deceased had criminal records, do you corroborate that?”

Salinas skillfully pirouetted around the fact that both the governor and the attorney general were either lying, or at best mistaken, as he carefully answered, “In regards to the statements by the then-attorney general and governor, I cannot say anything because I don’t know about that, but in what it corresponds to the file that I had at my disposal, it is another perspective, let’s say something in this regard, it’s another version…” he answered.

Subsequently, Renaldo would resign, and the entire police force of Boca del Rio would be fired for corruption, with the navy taking over policing duties.

Incredibly, few in the global press have made corrections to the identity of the victims, or noted the fact that, in truth, they dead included housewives, students, and a highly decorated police officer. For the most part they were regular citizens; innocents used as props. To this date, if one looks at the news accounts of the massacre, it remains attributed to a criminal-on-criminal act, with the dead described as members of the Zetas.

The idea of civilians being used by narcos to send a message is not new. But now, as mass killings are carried out in greater numbers, people are coming forth to seek justice for their murdered loved ones, who were falsely accused of being narcos.

Another high profile example is a recent massacre in Chapala, Jalisco. Eighteen people were found murdered and dismembered on May 9, the work of the Zetas-allied cartel Milenio Cartel. Immediately the word was the victims were not connected to the cartels.

The story did not stop there. It was initially reported that the death total was higher, by 14. There were 14 kidnapped children being held in a guarded safe house in Tala. By chance, the sicario was late to the execution. Just late enough for the guards to get so high on drugs they passed out.

This offered the victims an opportunity to escape, and 12 left through a window, leaving behind two who were imprisoned by fear. The decision to stay turned out to be a fatal one, as the two fearful boys were found the next day, dismembered, among the 18 victims.

On May 12 the Jalisco attorney general reported the capture of the mastermind of the massacre of the 18. He was identified as Juan Carlos Antonio Mercado, aka “El Chato,” the Zetas plaza boss in Tala, Jalisco.

El Chato admitted that the 12 who managed to escape from a safe house from his command were “innocents” with no criminal ties (see transcript of his confessions, below).

“Randomly,” Chato answered, when asked how people were selected for execution. “People were going to be tortured and dismembered, then be left in the Arcos de Millennium. My boss chose victims, he said who, then I kidnapped. He would point out one and say ‘that one,’” explained Chato.

The Veracruz 35 and those murdered in Chapala were innocents, and it is suspected the victims of recent mass killings in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Nuevo Laredo, and Nuevo Leon were also.

Additionally, there are the blogger murders. The first of the three executions were of a female and male couple, kidnapped, tortured and left hanging on a bridge in Nuevo Laredo. Next came the execution of a woman named Maria Elizabeth Macías, (“La Nena de Laredo”), whose tortured, decapitated body was left near a monument in the center of a roundabout. It was confirmed that she was a contributor to Nuevo Laredo en Vivo, a citizens forum created for people to share information on narco activities. A fourth victim was supposedly a blogger named “Rascatripas,” was a 35-year-old man killed and left on the same roundabout as Nena. In messages left at the scene, the Zetas took responsibility for the executions, declaring that the four were using blogs to report on narco activity.

With the last of the four, Rascatripas, was left a message stating the man was a reporter for Nuevo Laredo en Vivo, but the blog rejected the assertion via Twitter, saying that the dead man was “not one of our collaborators,” but “a scapegoat” whose murder serves to send a message of fear. Three of the four, then, have not been proven to have a connection to any narco news blog.

Also in Nuevo Laredo, 23 bodies were found on May 4, nine hanging off a bridge, with the Zetas taking responsibility. Hours later 14 dismembered “Zetas” were found, with a note signed in the name of Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. In a news conference, state authorities said the dead were regular citizens, not narcos.

On May 13, 49 dismembered bodies were abandoned in Nuevo Leon. Next to the bodies was a banner signed in the name of the Zetas, identifying the dead as criminals.

Days later dozens of banners signed by the Zetas disclaimed responsibility. Reports in leading Mexican newspapers said the executioners were members of the Gulf Cartel, who had concocted a plan so that the Zetas would be blamed.

The Defense Department (Sedena) announced that eight members of the Gulf Cartel had been detained, including a person using the moniker “El Loco.” Later, “El Loco” was identified by SIEDO as a leader of the Zetas. The whole scenario created confusion and mistrust of the federal agencies, which appeared not to have been working together.

The Defense Department indicated that though most victims were decapitated, those with heads had facial features consistent with Central America or “Southern Mexico,” and were suspected to be innocents. SEIDO has not issued a statement about the issue.

Below is part of El Chato’s interview, translated into English.

Police: What is your name?
El Chato: Juan Carlos Antonio Mercado
Police: What is your alias?
El Chato: “El Chato” (Meaning flat faced…)
Police: Who do you work for?
El Chato: Cartel Millennium
Police: How many people did you take part in kidnapping?
El Chato: 16
Police: Where were you holding them captive?
El Chato: In a house in Tala (Jalisco)
Police: You were in charge of the operation, what did you do and how much were you paid?
El Chato: 7,500 pesos a week. (About $600)
Police: For how long?
El Chato: Since mid April. We kidnapped them and were going to leave the bodies in the Arcos de Millennium, but we couldn’t because it was full of police and they were on to us, we couldn’t leave the bodies there…
Police: How did you choose the victims?
El Chato: Randomly.
Police: So they are innocent people?
El Chato: Yes.
Police: What was the purpose of this?
El Chato: To send a message, I don’t know.
Police: What message?
El Chato: I don’t know, a message for the government I think.
Police: Who were you doing this for?
El Chato: Fernando, he was the one that tortured them.
Police: You only kidnapped them or what else did you do?
El Chato: I kidnapped them, Fernando tortured them.
Police: What time of day did you kidnap them and what type of person did you kidnap?
El Chato: I would just get the order from Fernando, Fernando would come with me, he would just say “get that person,” and we would get them.
Police: Fernando is a Zeta?
El Chato: Yes.
Police: What is his code?
El Chato: R2.
Police: What is your code?
El Chato: R8
Police: What does the “R” stand for?
El Chato: I don’t know, they just told me I am “R8.”
Police: Who told you?
El Chato: Fernando.
Police: Do you work for any other cartels?
El Chato: No.
Police: Who is directly in charge of you?
El Chato: Fernando.
Police: What is his alias?
El Chato: R2
Police: Regarding the people in Tala, when did you kidnap them and how are they related to the 18 bodies found in Chapala?
El Chato: We just fucked them up, Fernando got phone numbers from the people in Chapala.
Police: You were going to dismember them also?
El Chato: I think so.
Police: When did you kidnap the people that were killed in [unintelligible].
El Chato: At the end of April.
Police: We have heard of a “cuota,” was there a certain number of people you had to kidnap?
El Chato: First they told me 10, then later 15.
Police: Did you participate in the kidnapping of the three waiters from the restaurant in Chapala?
El Chato: No.
Police: Did you participate in the killing of the two young men?
El Chato: No, Fernando killed them, Fernando chose the victims.
Police: Why? What physical characteristics did the people have [what type of people]?
El Chato: I don’t know, he just told me get this person or that person.
Police: How many people work for you?
El Chato: Seven.
Police: Are you sorry for what you did?
El Chato: Yes.
Police: When were you going to kill the 12 people that were found alive, or what was the plan?
El Chato: Supposedly May 10 [Mothers Day in Mexico].
Police: Why?
El Chato: I don’t know.

Reprinted with permission from Borderland Beat. Read expanded original version here.

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