The May 3 shootout between Mexican Army soldiers and alleged “duct suckers” or “huachicoleros,” who steal gasoline from the Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex)-owned Minatitlán pipeline that feeds different fuel to Mexico City, was filmed by a hidden security camera.
Needless to say, the video went viral rapidly as it shows law enforcement in Mexico and affects the nation’s international prestige.
In the two-minute video, one can see how a man shooting an assault rifle pumps lead into the back of a soldier killing him. Then, a soldier pulls down a man on the ground and as the man lies quietly subdued the “alleged” soldier executes the man in cold blood putting a bullet into the unarmed prisoner’s head.
The incident happened in the town of Palmarito Tochapan, in the Quecholac municipality in the eastern Mexican state of Puebla. In the final body count of the shootout, four soldiers and six civilians were killed. Thus far, nine alleged participants in the attack against the military platoon have been arraigned without bail for trial in the city of Puebla.
The soldiers were in Palmarito Tochapan on patrol assigned by the regional Military Zone command to prevent people from piercing the Pemex duct to extract fuel to resell on the black market. (For a bird’s eye view of the “huachicoleros” problem, read my May 8 column called “Gas Theft Out of Control.”)
The immediate question in the eyes of Mexican observers was that if the alleged culprits provoking the shootout are in jail and on trial, why not the soldier who executed a prisoner? In the eyes of both civilian and military law, that is murder.
The Defense Secretariat (Sedena) issued a statement claiming that the soldier can’t be identified at first sight and also that the video is suspect of having been edited to be used against the military for propaganda purposes by the gasoline thieves, just the same way the Army has been accused in several occasions of carrying out summary executions of organized criminal gangs to put them out of circulation. In this case, the “alleged” soldier may never be publicly identified.
This case also brings back to mind when Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos went to Congress to plead with them to approve and legalize the presence of military personnel in police surveillance duties, making it a point to say that soldiers are not trained to be policemen or to chase around common criminals, thus in all of their operations there might be use of “excessive force.”
It must be made clear that it is one thing to go after organized criminals such as drug runners and something else to surveil the security of a Pemex pipeline, which is national property.
On Thursday, the decision to approve the Interior Security Bill, authorizing the Armed Forces (mainly Army and Navy) legality to participate in police work, was back in both houses of Congress, but neither deputies nor senators can get their act together as to what kind of limits to set to the soldiers on duty. Solons talked about an extraordinary period to work on and approve a bill, but that’s still a maybe.
The use of the Armed Forces on the streets of Mexico was first authorized by President Felipe Calderón, but that was exclusively to go in hot pursuit of drug traffickers who are definitely well organized criminal groups. Calderón issued an executive order giving them the green light for that, but that executive order is seen as unconstitutional.
The Interior Security Bill, if approved into law, would legalize military operations even against civilians, as was the case at Palmarito Tochapan, where all the indicted alleged shooting culprits claim to be “campesinos” or farm workers.
Most of the non-government human rights organizations are opposed to awarding the military other powers than those allowed by the Constitution.
Senator Miguel Barbosa predicted earlier this week, when the video went viral, that “what this event is going to provoke is a mood of discontent, of rejection, over the behavior of military personnel carrying out public security actions.”
It is expected that in the meantime the ball is in Sedena’s court to identify the soldier who carried out the not so “alleged” execution so that Mexicans see the Armed Forces as a protection force and not as an execution squad, which is what the NGOs want private citizens to believe, particularly in the way the video is being manipulated.
What about the four dead soldiers also killed in cold blood? Oh well, they were on duty!
Congress has to act soon.