Mexico's National Commission on Human Rights has determined that federal police officers executed at least 22 individuals at a ranch last year, a grim reminder that human rights abuses by the country's security forces are not limited to the military.
The commission's findings were the result of an extensive investigation (pdf) into the killing of 42 civilians and one police officer in the state of Michoacán in May 2015. According to the commission, the use of excessive force by federal police officers led to the "arbitrary execution" of 22 people, and the deaths of four others. The officers then arranged weapons to appear as if the victims were killed in a shootout, the commission said in a press conference on August 18.
Authorities initially reported that the incident amounted to an armed confrontation between security forces and members of the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (CJNG), and they were quick to refute the commission's recent conclusions.
"The use of weapons was necessary and proportional against the real and imminent and unlawful aggression," said National Security Commissioner Renato Sales, who oversees the federal police. "That is to say, in our minds they acted in legitimate defense."
Federal police say they came under fire from the alleged drug traffickers, which precipitated the shootout that began at 8:00 or 8:30 a.m. But the commission's account said the officers arrived at the ranch in a "stealthy manner" as much as two hours earlier.
The CNDH determined 13 of the victims were killed while they had their backs to police. Five were shot from a helicopter that provided air support to the officers on the ground. The commission said it was unable to determine the conditions under which the other 15 victims were killed, at least in part because police altered the scene.
InSight Crime Analysis
While Mexico's military is thought to be the more frequent perpetrator of human rights abuses, the CNDH's investigation illustrates the deadly force that can be unleashed by unrestrained police. Last November, for example, the commission determined that excessive force by federal police officers resulted in the killing of at least six individuals during two related incidents in January 2015. And in September 2014, municipal police officers in the state of Guerrero kidnapped 43 students on orders from a mayor before handing them over to a local drug gang. The students are presumed dead.
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Despite growing evidence of human rights abuses, the government's immediate and defensive response to the commission's findings suggests it is unwilling to consider the consequences of its militarized approach to internal security. President Enrique Peña Nieto, who initially withdrew the military from action in some parts of the country when he took office in late 2012, has remained heavily reliant on the armed forces in the so-called "drug war" started under his predecessor, Felipe Calderon.