Ostula, the other legacy of Cienfuegos

The legacy of Salvador Cienfuegos was marked by the Ayotzinapa case and even more so by the Tlatlaya case, but there is another legacy that ended with the death of a 12-year-old boy.

Photography: Rodrigo Caballero.

Human rights. Aquila.- The bullet fragmented into six shards when it went through a window on the facade of the Costa Michoacana restaurant, inside two of them hit Hidelberto Reyes García and took his life.

The 12-year-old boy died instantly after receiving a shot that – according to investigations – could only come from a German G3 rifle carried by a member of the Mexican Army.

Hidelberto was just one of the dozens of victims of what would become known as the Ostula Case, another event that characterized the passage of Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda as head of the Secretariat of National Defense (Sedena) during the six-year term of President Enrique Pena Nieto.

After his arrest, on October 15, 2020, for crimes such as money laundering, drug transport and drug trafficking, Salvador Cienfuegos now faces a trial in the United States of America (USA) that does not take into account any of the cases of use excessive force and extrajudicial executions that marked his legacy.

Shots “into the air”

On July 19, 2015, a company of the Mexican Army was caught in a protest to demand the release of the commander of the Community Police of Santa María Ostula, Cemeí Verdia Zepeda, detained by the Mexican Navy on that Sunday morning.

A Navy helicopter had transferred the community leader to the city of Morelia, but the residents did not know it, so they closed the Michoacán coastal highway, which runs from the port of Lázaro Cárdenas to that of Manzanillo.

When the situation reached a breaking point, the soldiers fired at the unarmed population to break through the protesters, a dozen residents were injured and the 12-year-old boy lost his life.

Despite the videos and photographs that show the military firing at the population, the then coordinator of Federal Forces in Michoacán, General Felipe Gurrola Ramírez, said that the shots had been fired “into the air” and denied the participation of his elements in the death of Hidelberto.

“The military personnel, when they were attacked and surprised, did fire shots, but into the air to dissuade people who were attacking the military with sticks, even with real shots,” Felipe Gurrola justified a day after the murder, on Monday 20 of July 2015.

Missing military

After the death of Hidelberto, a legal battle began to demonstrate that the elements of the Sedena had participated directly in the aggression and to bring to trial the 15 soldiers who used their weapons that Sunday of 2015.

“The Ostula Case is the first of its kind. For the first time, the prosecution is investigating members of the armed forces. Until now, these cases had only been resolved in the military courts and not in the civil jurisdiction,” said the lawyer for the indigenous community, Raymundo Ortiz Martín del Campo.

In an exclusive interview for 2020News, the lawyer assured that now it only remains for a judge to issue an arrest warrant to detain the military who participated in the events, particularly the six who used their weapons.

Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA), 17 weapons were fired by personnel from the 65th Infantry Battalion based in the town of Coalcomán, Michoacán and they were the only ones who fired at the population of the Sierra-Costa .

On September 2, 2019, the Attorney General’s Office (FGR) traveled to the community of Ixtapilla on the coastal highway of Michoacán, some 200 kilometers from the port of Lázaro Cárdenas, where it determined that the projectile that killed Hidelberto came from the back of a military truck.

With a thread, the FGR expert traced the trajectory of the bullet from the splinters that hit a wall of the restaurant to the box of a Cheyenne-type truck located on the road, where witnesses reported that the elements of the SEDENA had fired.

“We found the closest height to the events from where it was shot, which continues to verify that it was from a military vehicle and that it was a military man who shot, that totally destroys the hypothesis that they (the military) had been shot from trees or by armed people”, Raymundo Ortiz assured.

The Nahua indigenous community members hope that the opinion issued by the FGR based on this expert evidence will be decisive for the corresponding arrest warrants to be issued and justice be made for the community and for Hidelberto’s family.

The problem now is that six of them – the crew of the truck from which the shots were fired – were discharged from the SEDENA three days after the operation and their whereabouts are currently unknown.
“The army presented the discharges only with their last known address where they were notified that they have a subpoena, so it is not very clear who directly fired,” said the indigenous lawyer.

Chain of command

Raymundo Ortiz assured that the community not only seeks to consign the military who participated in the operation but also the commanders who ordered it because he assured that they have elements to prove that it was illegal and that they acted with premeditation, treachery and advantage.

“There was no arrest warrant or anything to justify an operation of that magnitude. Cemeí Verdia was arrested for carrying a firearm, a weapon that the government gave him. It was a whole military deployment to provoke the population and justify a massacre ”, he assured.

One of the key elements is the SEDENA report that informs that its elements traveled only to patrol the area, when in fact they were part of a joint operation with the Government of the State of Michoacán.

“Those responsible should not be the only ones to be consigned for injuries and homicide, but also civil and military commanders for abuse of authority and improper exercise of public service,” concluded the lawyer.

Among the responsible people that the community seeks to hold accountable for their participation in the operation are the former governor of Michoacán, Salvador Jara Guerrero; the coordinator of Federal Forces, General Felipe Gurrola; the former Secretary of Public Security, Víctor Manuel Magaña García and the head of the Sedena, Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda.

“An operation of this size cannot be carried out without the order of the defense secretary, not only because of the deployment, but because the operation was carried out in coordination with the Government of Michoacán and within an indigenous zone, the chain of command reaches Cienfuegos, without a doubt ”, assured Raymundo Ortiz.

Five years without justice

While the Mexican justice has only just begun the process of issuing arrest warrants against the material authors of Hidelberto’s murder and has no plans to initiate a process against the commanders who ordered the operation, in the United States Cienfuegos is already facing a trial.

Arrested at the Los Angeles airport for an investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the former defense secretary faces charges for his alleged ties to the Beltrán Leyva Cartel.

Salvador Cienfuegos faces charges for having protected organized crime gangs, directing military operations against rival groups and even facilitating maritime transport for drug trafficking.

However, nothing remains between the charges of the US prosecutors in the most emblematic cases of corruption, abuse of force and extrajudicial executions such as Tlatlaya, Ayotzinapa and Ostula; where the participation of elements of the Mexican Army was demonstrated.

“It is a shame that it is a foreign government that judges General Cienfuegos and not the Mexican justice system and, furthermore, it is a shame that it does not face the cases of human rights violations that he should, such as the Ostula Case,” concluded the lawyer for the Nahua indigenous community.

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