By Laura Castellanos
April 27, 2015
* The following story describes evidence of a state massacre of unarmed civilians in Michoacán, Mexico. It was first published in Spanish by Proceso, Aristegui Noticias, and Univision, and has been translated by VICE News with permission of its author.
“Kill them like dogs,” the federal police screamed while opening fire on more than a hundred members and supporters of a rural police force who had set up an encampment in front of the city hall of Apatzingán, Michoacán, in the early hours of January 6.
None of the protesters carried heavy firearms. Six of them had registered handguns, which they placed on the ground. Others carried sticks and branches pulled from lime trees, according to multiple witness testimonies and images that appear in this report.
When the police arrived at about 12:30 am, everyone followed the orders of Nicolás Sierra, “El Gordo Corruco,” the leader of the unit known as G-250. No one fired a shot.
The group was created by Michoacán’s federal security commissioner, Alfredo Castillo, who for eight months had hunted Servando “La Tuta” Gómez, the leader of the Knights Templar cartel. La Tuta was eventually captured on February 27.
‘They shot him while he was on his knees, defeated, and unarmed.’
Sierra was one of the seven brothers known as Los Viagra — feared, hated, accused of being former Knights Templars and committing acts of abuse — and loved by those who refuted those assertions. Five of the brothers, in fact, had served in the ranks of armed civilian groups sanctioned by Castillo.
The rural guards, men forged by the lime fields they toil, protested because their unit had been dissolved twenty days before and they had not been paid. They were also suffering from new incursions by the Knights Templar on their businesses.
Rubén, a member of the rural police force, heard the shootout begin and had jumped into his truck when the police ordered: “Put your hands up, and get on your knees!”
He said he was about to obey, when a few meters away he saw another man kneeling, hands raised and held at gunpoint by the uniformed men. Then he witnessed the man’s execution.
“They shot him while he was on his knees, defeated, and unarmed,” Rubén said.
The recorded testimony of 39 people involved in the day’s events reveal that the federal police attacked and shot the unarmed civilians in confrontations in Apatzingán on January 6.
According to these testimonies, at 7:45 am, between Ave. Constitución and Plutarco Elías Calles St., a federal police convoy opened fire with M60 machine guns against more than a dozen vehicles that carried rural guards and angry relatives of those who were attacked outside city hall.
Castillo was then the highest federal authority in Michoacán. Six days after the events, he declared that the attacks had left a toll of one person ran over by a car, and eight deaths due to a “crossfire.”
The case has been reconstructed using the testimonies of twelve of the 44 people detained and released after the first attack, including a businessman; seven survivors of the second attack, three of whom were hospitalized; a legal representative; eight circumstantial witnesses; eight victims’ relatives; personnel from the Ramón Ponce General Hospital; and employees from the local forensics service, known as Semefo in Spanish.
Against fears of retaliation, the sources asked to remain anonymous.
The first attack
Days before the January 6 offensive at Apatzingán city hall, the G-250 group were warned of an imminent Knights Templar attack against their encampment. They also feared authorities would try to evict them.
That same night, an encounter had already occurred with soldiers from the 43rd Military Zone in Apatzingán, then under the command of Gen. Miguel Patiño. The soldiers attempted to dismantle the barricade that the G-250 said they had set up to stop a Knights Templar incursion in a small rancho nearby called Lomas de Hoyos.
Because of that, Sierra showed up at midnight at the city hall encampment, ordering his group to not fall to the soldiers’ “provocation,” in order to avoid being treated “as criminals.”
It was the early morning, and several families wandered around the food stalls and the stores near the central plaza of Apatzingán. Some rural policemen napped on their trucks. Others chatted in the plaza. The federal police convoy parked its vehicles on the backstreets of the city hall.
Witnesses said the federal officers beat a woman who was desperately telling them she was pregnant.
According to one member of the former G-250, the policemen were mostly hiding their faces or wearing black clothing. They carried three types of weapons: the 308-caliber Galil, the 7.62-caliber Heckler & Koch G32, and the 2.23-caliber R-15.
The security forces entered the square and the attack began. Footage from security cameras shows dozens of unarmed protesters seeking shelter in the central plaza. The gunfire lasted 15 minutes.
More federal policemen arrived and lay siege to the entire square. Witnesses said the federal officers performed extrajudicial executions. “Some of the men got out of their trucks, telling them that they were unarmed, and the federals got them on their knees and shot them,” one witness said.
Next to the city hall, in the parking lot, the federales opened fire against the trucks and dragged out and beat those who were inside.
After he was captured, Artemio, a rural policeman, witnessed the federal officers beat a woman who was desperately telling them she was pregnant. They told her: “Shut up bitch, or we are going to kill you.”
Then she was kicked, slapped, and dragged to a nearby store.
Many detained civilians were beaten and stripped of their belongings. Artemio, who was already subdued by the police, realized that many of the innocent did not make it out alive. “We heard people crying, women and children that were in pain, then, we heard shots and their voices went silent,” he said.
Artemio also witnessed the moment when the federal policemen loaded 11 people on a truck and took them away. A federal chief later asked one of his subordinates: “Where is the truck that I requested?”
“It already came and took the 11 people you said,” an officer answered.
The chief angrily responded: “Son of a bitch! I told you that it was for these assholes,” he said, pointing towards Artemio’s companions.
Artemio’s group was taken to the prosecutor’s office in the state capital of Morelia, and afterwards, to a prison in Tepic, Nayarit. But that didn’t happen with the eleven people taken in the truck, “who never appeared in Morelia or Nayarit,” Artemio said.
However, a local food seller and his son did appear in prison, along with other civilians who were captured at nearby stores. The vendor said he was detained with “two taxi drivers, one construction worker, a newspapers seller and his worker.”
Other civilians, as the neighbors recall, crossed the garden and hid in the rooftop of the Béjar building, but the policemen drove them out at gunpoint. Sierra and another neighbor said they saw ten corpses lying on the area, but the first attack left an unknown number of dead or hurt.
“Some were wounded, and others didn’t move,” the neighbor said.
The rescue team
Gray skies welcomed morning. The bloodstains on the pavement and the city hall’s walls were the only traces left from the previous night’s events.
The federales left the plaza began towing the cars that were abandoned by the protesters on Ave. Constitución.
Meanwhile, survivors, the relatives of the detained, and young laborers who had arrived to help were regrouping at a roundabout near the exit to the town of Chandio. Someone told them a federal police caravan was leaving the central plaza. Someone else said that caravan carried their captured and wounded friends, who were screaming for help.
The witnesses recall that people of all ages, armed with sticks, got onto trucks and tried to reach the caravan, aiming to free their comrades.
Near the crossing of Constitución and Plutarco Elías Calles, a neighbor witnessed the civilians reach the convoy. Incensed, they descended from their vehicles and smashed the windows of the last federal police truck in the caravan.
“Now you are all fucked!” one of the federal policemen yelled.
The federales opened fire with their M60s, a type of weapon used to destroy the shielded vehicles often used by organized crime. In this case, the M60s were used against unshielded vehicles.
The shooting lasted for 20 minutes and stopped the advance of the civilians. A white truck with seven young men armed with sticks, including a 16-year-old minor, held the front. They were followed by a black Arcadia truck, property of Miguel Madrigal, a member of Los Viagra who was traveling with his family.
Gunfire shot through their vehicles. One neighbor watched from a window as four young men sought cover in the bed of their truck. Police fired on them as they sought to escape.
The federal officers screamed “Kill them! Kill them!” the neighbor said. “I saw four of them wounded, and one was moving, but no helped him,” he added.
The federales didn’t call for ambulances, despite the fact that the Ramón Ponce hospital is located just one kilometer away.
From her window, a neighbor watched as three of the wounded people bled for almost an hour. “It was very sad,” she said. “It was almost as if they were comforting each other. They were alive, holding each other.”
‘I am with women and children’
Now it was the family’s turn. Madrigal’s black truck stood still at a corner of Constitución and Plutarco. He got off the vehicle, pulling his shirt up so as to show that he was unarmed But he was shot.
In a recording of the group’s radio communications that lasts nearly three hours, Madrigal at one point pleads for help. “They don’t stop shooting! I only have sticks and I am with women and children!”
A neighbor witnessed Madrigal’s son trying to counterattack with a pistol “that had five or six shots,” the witness said. But the response was nothing against the federal police’s assault weapons. Nevertheless, the younger Madrigal managed to hit and injure one federal officer.
The assault against the family forced them to lay close to each other on the ground, with the adult couple covering the rest with their bodies. The neighbor saw everything for twenty minutes: “The girls were screaming, ‘Don’t shoot us! We are unarmed!’ while they cried.”
The federales approached the family.
“Eight or ten came from the corner, and they shot them again,” the neighbor said. “They were massacred. They were reduced to pieces.”
The members of the Madrigal family died embracing each other, with multiple wounds, among sticks and pieces of torn apart human remains. One bullet blew up Madrigal’s head. His death certificate states that he died because of “a bullet injury to the skull.”
The federales then took to the trucks that were loaded with civilians and performed extrajudicial executions, said another witness who was riding by on a bicycle.
“The federales forced the civilians to step out, then put them on their knees, and began shooting them,” the cyclist said.
A group of rural guards dared to rescue the people that were entrenched by the shooting. They pulled out another young man with a chest wound, who had taken shelter in a restaurant. A 15-second video shows the young man lying on the floor, with his shirt drenched in blood, while he attempts to lift up his arms to be rescued.
‘The federales didn’t permit us to move the men, although they were not technically under arrest.’
The team that rescued this young man left him and another who had a destroyed knee on the sidewalk in front of the hospital, without giving notice to the personnel and without entering the place.
The medical staff, however, assures they didn’t help any civilians left at the hospital’s doorstep. One of the civilians that rescued them says that the federal officers could have taken the two wounded. So far, the whereabouts of these victims remains unknown.
The shooting ended, and one of the survivors said that the federal officers altered the crime scene of the corpses in the white truck. “The weapons that you can see were placed there by the federales.”
Four people were taken to the Ponce hospital. One of them, an 18-year-old, had his pelvis, bladder, and rectum shattered, and was rushed into surgery. The bullet injuries were so severe that the doctors could touch his cracked spine.
Another 17-year-old arrived with a pierced abdomen. One of the hospital’s doctors concluded that he had received a failed assassination shot to the head that damaged his brain, leaving the marks of burned gunpowder on his skin.
At 1:00 pm, Carlos Torres Vega, the hospital’s director, in an attempt to save the lives of those who had the worst injuries, tried to have the critical victims transferred to Morelia. The federal police didn’t allow their relocation, he said, which resulted in the death of one of the patients.
“The federales didn’t permit us to move the men, although they were not technically under arrest,” Torres said.
The authorization was given seven hours later. The 18-year-old with the pelvic injury was transferred first, but due to the delay “he bled too much and when we arrived to the tollbooth, he died.”
After the attacks, relatives began to search for their loved ones.
‘A group of women came in here crying, yelling that they couldn’t find their wounded daughters.’
The hospital personnel said that mothers entered the hospital looking for their daughters, whom they said had been wounded and allegedly taken by the federales.
“A group of women came in here crying, yelling that they couldn’t find their wounded daughters,” a hospital staff member said.
None of the corpses of the attacks were transferred to the Semefo forensics office in Apatzingán, and one of its workers declared that they had been instructed not to take the bodies into their facilities.
Three death certificates confirm the relocation of victims to other cities.
One belongs to 20-year-old Luis Alberto Lara Belmonte, who died by “lacerations on both lungs and thoracic trauma,” and was taken to the forensics office of the port city of Lázaro Cárdenas. Luis Gerardo Barajas Rodríguez, 18, who died by “multiple projectile wounds to the abdomen,” was taken to Zamora. And 20-year-old Guillermo Gallegos Madrigal, Miguel Madrigal’s son, deceased by “a headshot wound,” was relocated to Morelia.
Alfredo Castillo, pictured left, was removed as Michoacán federal security commissioner on January 22. (Photo by Eduardo Verdugo/AP)
On January 12, Castillo held a press conference in which he said that on the morning of January 6, a group of armed men that had occupied the city hall of Apatzingán had been evicted. He said nine people died in the confrontation.
Forty-four people were arrested for criminal association and for possession of 13 heavy weapons and one grenade, he said. Castillo declared that one man had been ran over by a car.
On the other side, the evicted group said that of the 44 people arrested, 25 were members of the G-250, and the other 19, including a pregnant woman and a mentally disabled girl, had taken no part in the protests.
Despite the official version of the events, on January 14, Uruapan judge Jorge Wong Aceituno ordered the “immediate release” of 43 of those detained, due to the lack of evidence against them.
The detainees were exonerated of the crimes of “possession of weapons for the exclusive use of the Army, or Air Force,” and of “criminal association.”
Just one member of the rural police force who was on guard far from the place where the events unfolded but arrived to help his colleagues while carrying one heavy firearm is still a prisoner. He is in the process of being released.
Regarding the second attack, Castillo said that at 7:45 am, armed men had ambushed a federal police caravan aiming to retrieve the seized vehicles. He said that eight men had died by “friendly fire.” He denied any extrajudicial executions.
The evicted group says that the initial toll of extrajudicial executions after the attacks was 16. But one of the group’s legal representatives says that the real number is unknown, because no one wants to make any claims “due to the fear.”
On January 22, Castillo was replaced as Michoacán federal security commissioner by Gen. Felipe Gurrola. He was given another government job, this time as head of Mexico’s national sports commission.
Commander Fausto Arenas, who oversaw the federal police in Apatzingán, was sent to Guerrero.
A few hours prior to the release of this investigation, the federal government announced that, after receiving anonymous video footage, it would look into alleged “excessive use of force” by the federal police in Apatzingán. However, authorities did not specify if this investigation would be conducted on the events of January 6.
The authorities haven’t altered their version of the events, and no investigations have been opened into the case. An interview request sent to Castillo received no answer.
Follow Laura Castellanos on Twitter @lcastellanosmx.
Fighting Mexico’s Knights Templar Cartel
Exactly a year ago today, February 24, 2013, in “Tierra Caliente,” Michoacán, a group of farmers and businessmen in two communities organized themselves to take up arms against the Knights Templar drug cartel. Tired of the absence of the rule of law, the lack of governability, and persistent corruption, they took matters into their hands and formed what they called “autodefensa” militias in towns of Tepalcatepec and La Ruana. In January, we returned to meet the militia leaders, to find out what is happening today in the region known as the Hot Land.