Around three o’clock in the morning on June 30, more than two dozen soldiers entered the small town of Tlatlaya, about 50 miles southwest of Mexico City.
According to the military, while the soldiers patrolled the town, they came across a winery guarded by armed drug traffickers. A shootout occurred, and the soldiers killed 22 cartel gunmen. That’s the official story.
But there’s another story—this one based on eyewitness accounts. According to this story, the troops did uncover a warehouse guarded by drug traffickers. There was a brief shootout, but the gunmen quickly surrendered, along with a 15-year-old girl.
This is what happened next.
“Then [soldiers] lined them up and they killed them,” according to witness testimony reported by El País. “You could hear the moans and wails.”
It wasn’t just eyewitness accounts that cast doubts on the official story.
There were blood spatters on the walls, and fewer shell casings than might be expected after a heavy gun battle. Thirteen soldiers are under investigation for carrying out a summary execution.
On Nov. 10, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda—Mexico’s defense secretary—gave a speech in Nuevo León about the killings. He said the soldiers deserved a fair trial and that the military will cooperate with the country’s National Human Rights Commission during the investigation.
Then he made statements that moved unnervingly into politics.
“Rumor, intrigue and disloyalty erode foundations, defile convictions, hinder the potential of the country and weaken institutions,” Cienfuegos said. “Therefore I call upon all of society, government and the armed forces to close ranks in the national interest.”
Next Cienfuegos came out in support of Pres. Enrique Peña Nieto’s domestic policies.
“For our part, the forces of land, sea and air strongly support Mr. President and his government’s plan to lead the country to better development possibilities. Mexico, our great nation, deserves it.”
This is an unusual and controversial thing to say, even in Mexico, which has a stronger tradition of the military playing a role in domestic affairs than in the United States—historically as a way to build national unity and ward off unrest.
The Mexican army “engaged routinely in labores sociales, a broad range of civic action, public works, and service delivery missions, particularly in rural areas,” wrote Brian Loveman in For la Patria: Politics and the Armed Forces in Latin America.
“Such ‘non-military’ missions preceded the Cold War and the Cuban Revolution by decades—if not centuries—in Latin America.”
But politicians Mexico have also in the past used the military to crush dissent, such as the October 1968 massacre of hundreds of students, days before the opening of the Summer Olympics.
It’s a senior military commander talking about supporting a particular president’s domestic agenda that has some experts worried. “What is particularly remarkable about these new statements is their overtly political nature,” wrote John Ackerman, a law professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
“They offer to intervene not only to defend against narcotraffickers and organized crime but also to support ‘the development and progress of the nation’ and, in particular, Peña Nieto´s neoliberal ‘government project’ so that ‘the country can reach better development possibilities,’” he added.
“They seem to be clearing the ground in preparation for an expansion of political repression.”
To put it into perspective, if would be as if Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel came out and urged the military to support Pres. Barack Obama’s domestic priorities. That would be career Kryptonite for a senior Pentagon official.
Mexico is also going through a very troubled time. Several cities are the site of recurring protests that emerged after the massacre of 43 students near the town of Iguala, Guerrero—with the complicity of the local mayor and the police.
The mayor, Jose Luis Abarca, is in jail, accused of ordering the police to arrest the students during their trip to protest teacher-hiring practices. The police shot at the students, killing two of them, arrested the rest and handed them over to a group of local gangsters, known as Guerreros Unidos.
The gang then executed the students and burned their bodies in a landfill.
On Nov. 8, demonstrators set ablaze the door of the ceremonial National Palace in downtown Mexico City. There’s also rumors of students considering an attempt to close and blockade Mexico City International Airport before Peña Nieto returns from the APEC Summit in Beijing.
Underlying all of these protests is the fact that for ordinary Mexicans in large parts of the country, there are still serious risks in simply going about daily life. Kidnappings are common, and traveling throughout the day in numerous cities is a matter of taking care of one’s business as quickly as possible—while avoiding spending time outside after dark.
This is while the government has refrained from discussing the drug war, despite the arrests and killings of several cartel bosses. The government has also unleashed a public-relations blitz in both Mexico and the United States that includes the high-powered, Washington D.C.-based lobbying firm CLS Strategies.
“None of Peña Nieto’s policies—as laudable as they may be—have changed this dynamic,” wrote Steven Dudley and David Gagne of InSight, a Web site that monitors Latin American criminal organizations. “Until his government makes criminal groups realize that they can’t capture, execute, and burn students with impunity, there is no PR or lobbying firm in the world that will be able to bury this story.”
Which makes the country’s top general getting involved all the more worrying.