President López Obrador on Wednesday said that soldiers involved in an apparent massacre of five men in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, last month would be turned over to authorities to face justice.
“It appears there was an execution, and that cannot be allowed; we’re not the same as previous governments,” he told reporters at his morning news conference.
“When there is abuse, … when human rights are violated, the culprits have to be punished,” López Obrador said, adding that all the soldiers involved in the alleged extrajudicial killings were “on the verge” of being turned over to the relevant authorities.
His remarks came after the newspaper El País and the broadcaster Univisón disseminated security camera footage of the alleged army massacre, which occurred in the early afternoon of May 18 in the northern border city.
Video shows a pickup truck traveling at high speed, veering off a Nuevo Laredo road and crashing into a wall. Soldiers, on foot and in an army vehicle, arrive at the scene a short time later and surround the pickup.
They subsequently disarm and remove the civilians from the pickup before kicking some of them and forcing them against the wall. After four men have apparently been executed by the army — a fifth would later die in hospital — footage shows a soldier placing weapons next to the victims.
In the video, the soldier uses a red bag to hold the firearms — apparently to avoid leaving his fingerprints on them. Handcuffs were also taken off one of the slain men.
“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 Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an associate professor at George Mason University who studies the Mexico-U.S. border.
She told the Associated Press that as long as soldiers continue to carry out public security duties in the streets, “This is going to keep happening.”
The alleged murder of the five men occurred less than three months after soldiers opened fire on another pickup in Nuevo Laredo and killed five other men. Federal prosecutors in April formally accused four of those soldiers of murder.
Deputy Interior Minister Alejandro Encinas said in March of the previous victims that they were unarmed and not involved in a confrontation with the army. They were reportedly returning home from a night on the town when they came under attack.
The Defense Ministry (Sedena) issued a brief statement on Tuesday after footage of the latest incident emerged. It said it was cooperating with the Federal Attorney General’s Office in order to determine responsibility for the alleged crime.
Sedena said that the Military Justice Prosecutor’s Office had also begun an investigation “to determine responsibilities derived from military legislation.”
It stressed that “no conduct contrary to the rule of law” will be covered up and that improper military behavior will be punished.
The National Human Rights Commission said it was conducting its own investigation into the events of May 18.
Raymundo Ramos, president of the Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee, said that the soldiers involved in the apparent execution should have already been arrested.
“There is compelling evidence that warrants the immediate arrest of the personnel,” he said.
López Obrador on Wednesday described military killings during his government as “isolated cases.”
“In the past, massacres were ordered from above; the supposed security policy was carried out by [convicted drug trafficker Genaro] García Luna, and it was ‘kill them in the heat of the moment,'” he said, referring to the man who was security minister in the 2006–12 government of former president Felipe Calderón.
“It was war, and the wounded were finished off, and there were executions,” López Obrador said. “These [incidents during my government] are isolated cases, and when they occur, they are punished.”
The president said there would be no “cover-up” of what happened in Nuevo Laredo last month “because we don’t tolerate the violation of human rights, and I repeat — even though I sound like a broken record — we’re not the same [as past governments].”
While López Obrador portrays his administration as being vastly different from its predecessors, the president has — like his predecessors — continued to use the military for public security tasks. Before he took office, he pledged to gradually remove the armed forces from the nation’s streets.
The government purports to have a non-confrontational security strategy toward crime known as “hugs, not bullets,” in which greater emphasis is placed on addressing the root causes of crime than on combating criminals with force.
But clashes between security forces and criminals still occur regularly, and there have been cases in which fatal force has been used by authorities for no apparent reason, as was the case in April when the National Guard shot and killed a pregnant teenager and a man in his 50s in Nuevo Laredo.
Located opposite Laredo, Texas, the border city is a stronghold of the Northeast Cartel, an offshoot of the Zetas crime organization. Clashes between the military and cartel henchmen are not unusual in the city, but the security situation in Tamaulipas as a whole has recently improved, authorities say.