MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico’s president described the slayings of five men caught on security camera footage as an apparent “execution” by soldiers, and vowed Wednesday that the perpetrators would face justice.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a staunch supporter of the armed forces, has insisted that under his administration they have shed any previous tendency toward human rights abuses. He said Wednesday that the slayings in a northern border city last month were impermissible, and that soldiers involved were being turned over for prosecution.
Video from a store security camera that was published this week showed a black pickup truck crashing full speed into a wall in Nuevo Laredo, across from Laredo, Texas. A Mexican military truck apparently pursuing it arrived shortly thereafter and ran into the passenger side of the pickup.
The occupants of the truck were dragged out, kicked and forced up against a wall. They were later found dead.
“Apparently this was an execution, and that cannot be permitted,” López Obrador said at his daily news briefing. “Those responsible are about to be turned over to the appropriate authorities.”
López Obrador has given the military an unprecedented role in everything from law enforcement to infrastructure projects, as well as running trains and airports. He has staunchly defended the army’s honesty, but the military continues to be dogged by complaints of human rights abuses, especially in Nuevo Laredo.
The Defense Department issued a statement late Tuesday saying it was cooperating with civilian prosecutors in the case, and had started an investigation of possible violations of the military code. Under Mexican law, abuses by soldiers involving civilians go through civilian courts.
The video, originally reported Tuesday evening by U.S.-based Univision and Spain’s El Pais newspaper, is apparently security camera footage showing the daytime incident in Nuevo Laredo.
After chasing and crashing into the pickup truck, soldiers pull five men from the pickup, disarm and kick them, and then line them up against the wall.
Soldiers then turn back toward the road and appear to open fire. Their apparent attackers are out of frame. Some soldiers while sheltering behind the pickup, turn their guns on the men against the wall.
Later, the soldiers walk around the scene calmly. One, using a red bag — apparently to avoid leaving fingerprints — picks up guns and places them next to the bodies.
A Tamaulipas state law enforcement report on the incident said the initial call came into the command center at 2:41 p.m. on May 18 as a wounded person and several dead.
State investigators and forensic workers arrived at 3:11 p.m. and found two white pickups and many shell casings on the ground around them. Sixty meters away is the back of a store, separated by a concrete wall. Against the wall was the black pickup with all four doors open. Four bodies were nearby all displaying wounds.
At the hospital, a fifth victim was found. The man had three bullet wounds.
Nuevo Laredo is a city dominated by the Northeast drug cartel, and shootouts between cartel gunmen and soldiers or rival gangs are common.
Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an associate professor at George Mason University who studies the border, said the soldiers were apparently trying to alter the crime scene to make it look like there had been an armed confrontation.
“It seems that the intention was to leave these bodies with weapons to make it look like a confrontation between armed groups of civilians, as has happened before,” said Correa-Cabrera.
The killings appear to call into question López Obrador’s strategy of relying almost exclusively on the military for law enforcement.
“It is clear that the armed forces have been participating in security in this city, and also that this city has never been made safe,” she said. “As long as we have soldiers doing (law enforcement) duties in the streets, this is going to keep happening.”
The men were apparently unarmed and in a report, Mexico’s governmental human rights agency said the soldiers had fired into the vehicle without giving verbal orders for it to stop. Angry neighbors attacked the soldiers, beating some of them.
In April, federal prosecutors charged four soldiers involved with homicide.
That same month, a human rights organization in Nuevo Laredo sent a formal complaint to López Obrador. In it, a man said Mexican National Guard troops had fired on his vehicle in Nuevo Laredo killing his pregnant 15-year-old girlfriend and a 54-year-old friend and wounding two others. A law enforcement crime-scene report on the incident largely corroborated the account of the shooting contained in the complaint.
López Obrador claims the army has changed and has tried to depict incidents like the most recent killings as isolated acts by bad soldiers, but that doesn’t convince many.
“This does not look like an error,” said Correa-Cabrera. “Here, this looks very organized.”