Forgotten victims of Mexico drug war's stray bullets

Leticia Pineda
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The place where a child was killed during crossfire between gunmen and the police in Ocotlan, Jalisco state

The place where a child was killed during crossfire between gunmen and the police in Ocotlan, Jalisco state (AFP Photo/Hector Guerrero)

Ocotlan (Mexico) (AFP) - The mechanic was working under a car when he turned his head and saw a dozen pick-up trucks creeping down the street in Mexico's western state of Jalisco.

"The devil is on the loose," Jorge Gerardo Herrera said ominously to his colleagues as he turned back to the car he was fixing in the town of Ocotlan.

Suddenly, a gunfight erupted and a stray bullet landed in the mechanic's heart, turning him into the latest innocent and forgotten victim of Mexico's cruel drug violence.

His death was recounted by the garage's owner, Felipe de Jesus Ramirez, who was there when members of the powerful Jalisco New Generation drug cartel ambushed a federal gendarmerie convoy on March 19.

Eleven people died in the shootout, including five police officers, three suspected gunmen and three bystanders. The victims included a teenager who was returning home after doing his homework at a friend's place.

"We could hear the bullets whizzing by," Ramirez said. He ran into his garage with a woman and five girls who had been walking nearby.

Jorge Gerardo died as he stepped onto the sidewalk, caught by a bullet that felled him instantly. He was 25 and about to get married.

- No compensation -

More than 80,000 people have died in Mexico's drug war since late 2006, when then president Felipe Calderon deployed troops to crackdown on drug cartels.

The controversial deployment, which has continued since President Enrique Pena Nieto took office in 2012, has led to numerous clashes between gangs and security forces.

There are deaths on both sides, and occasionally innocent bystanders are caught in the crossfire. But there are no official figures on the number of bystanders killed in the drug war, according to experts.

The country lacks legislation on who should compensate the families of victims, and how those families should be treated, said Gerardo Rodriguez Sanchez Lara, a national security expert.

"The issue is complex and very new in Mexico," he said, noting that in a country at war, those who lose or the state will usually be made to pay damages.

But in a country not at war, where there are "extrajudicial actors who kill civilians, the issue of compensation is more complicated," the expert said.

Rodriguez said the state should provide compensation to families of civilians killed in clashes, just as it takes care of relatives of dead police officers.

One major case of innocent civilians caught in the drug war took place last year in southern Guerrero state, where crooked police officers opened fire on busloads of college students.

Three students and three bystanders were killed. Another 43 students were abducted by officers and delivered to a drug gang, which killed them and incinerated their bodies, according to prosecutors.

In the northern state of Tamaulipas, shootouts have regularly erupted in the cities of Matamoros, Reynosa and Tampico this year.

Residents have used social media to indicate where shootouts take place so that people can take cover.

- Hiding in bathroom -

But the people of Ocotlan, a town of 90,000, did not have much time to react to the March 19 ambush.

An altar with flowers and candles was placed on the spot where the teenage student was killed, just 400 meters (yards) from where the mechanic was hit.

The walls of homes still bear the scars of bullet holes.

One woman said she and her son hid in the bathroom when the bullets began flying.

"Thank God, they were only 9mm bullets" and not more lethal ammunition fired by AR-15 or AK-47 assault rifles -- weapons used in other attacks and that are powerful enough to penetrate walls, said the woman, who asked for security reasons to remain anonymous.