MORELIA, Mexico (AP) — Most of the eight people who died last week in a confrontation with federal police were killed by other civilians, according to the federal commissioner charged with bringing order to the troubled western state of Michoacan.
Alfredo Castillo on Monday gave a third government version of what happened Jan. 6 when civilians in pickup trucks tried to stop a federal police convoy in Apatzingan, hub of the conflictive Michoacan farming region called the Tierra Caliente, or Hot Land.
First he reported last week they were killed after firing on the military, then on the federal police and finally that they were killed by their own men firing at police. He said all but two women among the dead had residue indicating they fired guns, even though witnesses said they were unarmed and came out of the trucks saying "Don't shoot."
Ballistics tests show that all of the eight were hit by bullets not used by the federal police, he said. Only two of the dead also had been shot by police, Castillo said, but added it was impossible to determine whether police or civilians issued the fatal wounds.
A total of nine people died that day. One was hit by a car while fleeing from federal forces seizing the city hall that was taken over by about 100 civilians protesting an increase in electricity costs, and the government requiring that they turn in their arms, according to the families of the dead.
Michoacan is a patchwork of drug gang members and self-defense vigilante groups that rose up in 2013 to fight the dominant Knights Templar cartel. There have been accusations that former cartel gunmen have infiltrated vigilante groups, many of which have been recruited into a government-sponsored rural police force. Castillo said last week he didn't know who the protesters were at the city hall or what their issues were.
Witnesses and survivors disputed all of the official versions. They told The Associated Press the dead were former self-defense group members who were angry that federal police had arrested 44 of their comrades, and that the protesters were armed only with sticks.
According to photographs, as many as three guns were found at the scene, although one, a standard rifle, was moved around according to various images. Castillo said people in a fleeing truck hit the other civilians as they fired on federal police. He said authorities are looking for that truck.
New clashes between vigilante groups and government forces in Michoacan are calling into question the government's strategy. Eleven people were killed last month in a clash between rural forces.
Five members of a vigilante-style community police force were killed late Sunday in an ambush in western Mexico, authorities and members of the group said.
Luz Sandoval, a member of the "community police" movement in the Michoacan state mountain town of Aquila, said Monday that 13 members of the group were on patrol when they were attacked on Sunday.
"The colleagues had gone to patrol the area, because that is where masked men had been sighted," said Sandoval. Unidentified assailants opened fire on them in a rural area, killing five and wounding eight, the state prosecutors' office said in a statement.
"The truck (the vigilantes were travelling in) was full of bullet holes," Sandoval said. "We still don't know who attacked them. It could have been Templars or ex-Templars."
The wounded are being treated at local hospitals. There was no information on their condition.
Aquila, a county of about 25,000 people, has been a point of conflict because the Knights Templar had been illegally exploiting the town's iron ore mines.
The Michoacan prosecutor's office said Monday it had seized 20 properties owned by leaders of the cartel, including five properties that belonged to the gang's deceased leader, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez. It said it also seized seven horses and three vehicles. While many top leaders of the Knights Templar cartel have been captured or killed in the year since Castillo took over, some remain at large.