In the central Mexican state of Morelos on Thursday, Nov. 30, a raid by state police left four women, an infant, and a teenage boy dead. And since then Mexico’s fastest growing drug cartel has been out for blood.
The officers involved claim the deceased were “caught in a crossfire” during a shootout at their residence in the town of Temixco, about three miles south of Cuernavaca, a popular tourist destination.
But the crossfire theory has been contradicted by eyewitness testimony and and by forensic evidence. The half-dozen victims were found huddled on the bathroom floor and appear to have been killed execution style. At least three bodies were found with a single 9mm bullet to the head, according to the family lawyer. Investigators also charge that the police officers falsified evidence in the case, such as planting bogus firearms near the bodies.
The target of the raid was José Valdez Chapa, aka “El Señor de la V” (“The Lord of the V”). Valdez allegedly has been linked to several criminal organizations, including Los Rojos (The Reds), the Southern Cartel, and the ascendant Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG).
Those killed during the operation were all Valdez’s immediate family, including his wife, mother, sister, cousin, 2-month-old niece, and 14-year-old nephew. They were celebrating the baptism of the youngest child when police stormed the apartment building.
Valdez and six others surrendered to authorities during the raid. However, over the next few days all the suspects were freed, with the presiding judge citing “inconsistencies” in police reports and in the results of field ballistic tests.
Upon his release, The Lord of the V was met by a convoy of 10 trucks bearing some 40 men, as reported by Mexico’s Milenio newspaper. Standing before the courthouse, Valdez promised vengeance against those officials from the Morelos State Commission for Public Security responsible for the alleged extrajudicial killings.
“For every drop of blood spilled from my family [there] will be a liter of blood spilled from yours,” Valdez vowed before climbing aboard one of the trucks and speeding off.
Valdez wasn’t alone in his outrage over the bloodshed of innocents and charges of police corruption. The “massacre” quickly led to street protests in Temixco, with marchers carrying signs demanding the accused officers be brought to justice.
The family’s lawyer has accused authorities of “fabricating” a crime scene, and forensics indicate the weapons planted on the bodies of the slain women had not been fired by them. In fact, investigators indicate that police officers were the only ones to have discharged weapons during the raid, and that their claims of “repelling” an attack were faked.
A survivor of the assault said that officers “came in shooting,” and promised “that they were going to kill everyone.” Based on preliminary evidence, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission has promised to take up the case, although such scrutiny carries little official weight.
Morelos Police Commissioner Alberto Capella already has walked back his initial promise to undertake an internal investigation. Capella now refuses to release the names of the officers involved and is sticking to the “crossfire” story despite evidence to the contrary.
“These cases are all too common in Mexico,” says Laura Carlsen, director of the Mexico-based Americas Project, in an interview with The Daily Beast. “There’s even a category for it with the macabre title of ‘perfect lethality.’”
That’s when “the people on just one side are killed and there are no wounded. This doesn’t happen in a shootout—in real life, in a typical shootout, you have about an equal killed-to-wounded ratio,” Carlsen said. Perfect lethality only “happens in an execution.”
Extrajudicial killings like those in Temixco are “part of the strategy and a standard practice of the police and armed forces here,” Carlson says. A 2016 analysis by the United Nations also highlighted the “lack of accountability” behind such frequent executions in Mexico.
“Trust in the police and justice system [is] at desperately low levels among the public,” says Duncan Wood, a Latin American specialist with the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Wood also agrees with Carlsen that the narrative offered by Morelos state authorities in the Temixco shootings seems implausible:
“With ample evidence to show that police have repeatedly failed to use effective investigative tools and procedures, there is every reason to be skeptical of the official version of events,” says Wood.
Until an independent investigation takes place, he adds, “serious doubts will continue to be raised about police actions.”
V for “Vendetta”
José “El Señor de la V” Valdez was last seen threatening the Morelos state police and promising blood for blood. But his enemies are also out for vengeance.
In December of 2015, another shootout occurred in Morelos, this time in an upscale neighborhood of Cuernavaca. The Lord of the V escaped, but Valdez’s younger brother Óscar was killed in the gun battle—and so was one of the cops.
Observers say the slaughter of the Valdez clan in Temixco was likely meant as payback for the dead officer.
“This case apparently shows a bloody vendetta in a context of impunity such that security forces didn’t think twice about massacring an entire family,” Carlsen says. “Mexico is dangerously close to a state where police and armed forces have in practice carte blanche powers, with no consequences for crimes and human rights violations.”
But if corrupt cops might have little reason to fear legal repercussions in Mexico, they can still be subject to the law of the streets.
A week after events in Temixco, the fearsome CJNG put up signs along a highway in Morelos offering a 100,000 peso reward (about $5,000) for the heads of Commissioner Capella and several other police chiefs and commanders linked to the Valdez case.
By far the most powerful of the crime groups with which Valdez has been associated, the involvement of the CJNG dramatically increases the chances that Lord V will act on his promise to spill “liters” of blood in his quest for revenge.
“CJNG is now the largest cartel in Mexico. They’re always looking for ways to expand their territory, and Morelos is no exception,” says Emmanuel Gallardo, an independent journalist in Mexico City. He explains that bounties on the officers are a way to “pressure and intimidate” authorities into compliance with the cartel.
“This is just more proof that Mexican authorities are incapable of providing security to citizens,” says Gallardo, who characterizes police in Morelos as “corrupt to the core.”
Americas Project Director Carlsen takes heart, however, from the response generated by grassroots demonstrations and NGOs alike:
“The fact that there are protests and investigation of the [Temixco] massacre as a crime against humanity is encouraging,” she says. “If there is enough outrage and organization, the hope is that it can crack the impunity”—and in the process thwart the law of the street.