Clara Gómez González. Centro Prodh. All rights reserved.
When 22 civilians were killed at a warehouse in the town of Tlatlaya, Mexico, the official story was that the military had engaged in ‘clashes’ with a drug trafficking gang. But eyewitness Clara Gómez González, whose daughter was killed in the incident, said it wasn’t that way at all – many of the people in the warehouse were executed. Her decision to speak out sparked numerous investigations, and three members of the army are awaiting trial on charges of homicide. But her fight for justice continues.
Clara Gómez González’s only daughter, Erika, vanished one day from their hometown of Arcelia, in Guerrero state. It is a region of Mexico where state-sponsored violence often converges with that of organised crime. Such disappearances are not uncommon there; it is known that criminal groups sometimes hold girls against their will or make them victims of human trafficking. Weeks after vanishing, Erika – whom Clara describes as a serene and studious 15-year-old – phoned her mother and said, in a tense voice, that she was in nearby Tlatlaya. Clara went there to try to rescue her. Mother and daughter spoke briefly but the young men who were with Erika cut them short, and forced them both inside a truck. They were taken to a warehouse, where Clara was sent to a corner to sleep.
Some time later, in the early hours of 30 June 2014, an army unit arrived at the warehouse and began shooting. An exchange of fire ensued. Erika was wounded by a bullet to the leg. The soldiers ordered that the people inside the warehouse surrender, which they did. But a number of them were taken aside, one by one, and shot. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) concluded that between 12 and 15 extrajudicial executions were carried out in what became known as the Tlatlaya massacre. Erika was among those killed, and it is still not clear what happened to her. Clara had seen her alive, weak from her leg wound. But Clara was not allowed to tend to her daughter because she herself was accused of being a criminal, a drug trafficker. Only later was she able to see the corpse.
Clara, a teacher who worked in poor rural communities outside Arcelia, was interrogated over the course of one week. Under duress from the threats and cruel treatment of state officials investigating the case, she signed a sworn statement without knowing what it actually said. The only other two survivors of the massacre, also women, were tortured while investigated, a fact confirmed by the CNDH. When a journalist came looking for Clara, to hear her eyewitness account, she was initially afraid.
“I hid for three days, but then my oldest son told me to do it, he said it was nothing more than an interview, just a simple interview. He encouraged me and so I did it, I spoke out, and that’s how everything was discovered,” Clara says.
They thought I would never talk.
“I broke my silence because I was very desperate in my house, hearing the lies in the newspapers, in the news, that this was not an extrajudicial execution, that it was a shoot-out. That was not true, that’s what pained me, that the government was saying it had been a shoot-out and was congratulating itself, and they were telling pure lies...they also talked about my daughter and said she was part of organised crime and that was a huge lie, so I also broke the silence in memory of my daughter.”
“Everyone in the government, the state, wanted this to go unpunished. They thought I would never talk,” Clara says.
As soon as Clara told her story, initially under the pseudonym ‘Julia’, she was flooded by other journalists, human rights organisations, and state and military officials who finally decided to investigate the killings. She recalls being in a state of shock. She had to move away from her home in Arcelia for a time because of the threats she received. Her case was taken to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which granted precautionary measures urging that Mexico ensure her safety. She has a police escort and security cameras have been installed at her home. Despite all the complications, she does not want to leave her hometown; her three sons live there, and that’s where her job is.
“I can’t go out to work (in other communities) like I did before, I work closer now because of the lack of security ... and when I go out shopping, I don’t feel safe either because I have to go with the escort, and it’s not like before when I would go out alone, and have fun, not any more. Life has taken a turn, it has changed for me,” Clara says.
Clara Gómez González. Centro Prodh. All rights reserved.She knows that she is not alone in suffering the impact of widespread violence, but most people are too afraid to speak out. “We see what has happened and we don’t say anything, we stay silent because we are afraid that they will threaten us. Because in my town, if you talk or say something, well, they just simply go and take you, they do something to you or disappear you, just for saying the truth. And that’s what the government does too … instead of bringing peace, they bring misfortune to the town.”
You don’t know who to trust any more.
“You don’t know who to trust any more, because just as the government gets support from organised crime, organised crime gets support from the government. They are the same thing ... and the people end up in the middle. We’re living in a country of insecurity.”
Clara believes that this violence, this war, could be solved with measures to combat poverty, bolster education and create more jobs, so that the young men drawn to working for organised crime networks have decent alternatives. She also says the state must train its authorities better, so they treat people humanely – and respect the law.
“They treat us badly. If you’re in the street, they grab you and they beat you. These are the corrupt agents of the government,” Clara says in reference to members of the police, the military and the government itself.
Seven members of the army unit that carried out the Tlatlaya massacre were originally investigated, and only three were charged with homicide. Clara wants the other four to be investigated further and she demands that the entire chain of command be held accountable, since it has been shown that an “order to kill” was given from above. She also wants access to the case files from related military court proceedings, which are kept from the public and even from victims or interested parties, such as herself.
As for who took Erika away from Arcelia in the first place, there has been no investigation. The state said initially that the group in the Tlatlaya warehouse was linked to the Michoacan Family cartel, but no inquiries were made regarding its involvement in human trafficking or holding girls against their will. On the contrary, state officials still insist that Clara and Erika were part of the criminal group. They justify the army’s actions, and contend that the three soldiers facing trial may have gone only a little too far.
“I want it to be made clear that neither my daughter nor I are drug traffickers, as they had said before. Because the government hasn’t recognised this,” Clara tells us. “I want justice to be done and I want to know the truth, the whole truth. And the most important thing for me is that the chain of command be investigated. I want to know why they gave the order to kill, to take down those 22 people. And I want them to give me access to my case files to find out what’s in there and see what the government is hiding.”
Asked if she regrets having spoken out in that first “simple interview” so many months ago, Clara is categorical.
“I don’t regret having done it now. I do it with pride and so that many people who have cases similar to mine will not stay silent, so they feel the courage to clear their children’s names, or their own … because if not, Mexico won’t ever be able to move forward.”
A full report on the Tlatlaya case was released by the Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez (Centro Prodh), which provides legal representation to Clara (here is an English-language summary of that report). More information about Clara’s case is available in an interview she gave to CNN Español and in this article (both in Spanish).
CELS gives special thanks to Centro Prodh for its help with this interview.
This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organisation with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights. The partnership coincides with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.