The massacre of 11 youths at a Christmas party in Mexico: ‘They showed up, walked in and didn’t stop shooting’

An armed group opened fire on a group of friends and the music band during a holiday celebration on a private estate in Salvatierra, in the state of Guanajuato, the scene of bloody turf battles between drug cartels

Masacre en Salvatierra, Guanajuato
Guests at the holiday party in Salvatierra (Guanajuato), shortly before the massacre.
Beatriz Guillén

An armed group broke into a rural property and destroyed an entire town. Salvatierra, in the south of the Mexican state of Guanajuato, was already a territory of clandestine graves. In this town bordering the state of Michoacán, residents have been dealing for years with the pain of disappearances, uncontrolled violence and power in the wrong hands. But in the early hours of Sunday, the terror expanded and occupied everything. An organized crime commando showed up at a “posada,” a party that a group of friends had organized to celebrate Christmas. The hitmen killed 11 young people and wounded 14 others, according to the latest figures from the Guanajuato Prosecutor’s Office, which has recovered 195 shell casings from the crime scene. The motive? In Salvatierra they say they don’t know. “They just showed up, walked in and didn’t stop shooting,” says Angie Almanza, a relative of two of the victims. “The only goal was to kill.”

By the time the sun came out, Paulina López had lost her brother Marco Antonio López, 22 as well as her boyfriend Antonio Sánchez, 27. The teacher Ana Maura Rivera had one son dead, 16-year-old Héctor, and another one wounded, 18-year-old Emiliano. Irving Ruiz’s niece has lost the uncle who adored her. The killers murdered two friends, Macarena Becerril and Thalía Cornejo, both 25. José Alberto Ramírez Gia, also 25, died and his twin was seriously injured. The children of Juan Luis García Espitia, 36, and Galileo Almanza, 25, lost their fathers. The criminals shot dead David Hernández, 27, and Emiliano Vargas, 23. It was daylight and only pain remained.

The San José del Carmen hacienda is a 17th-century building with beautiful arches where the group of friends took their last photo. It is located about 10 minutes from Salvatierra and is often rented out for parties and celebrations. “The young people had gathered there for Christmas and because some of them were also going to go study or work outside the town. They were from the same generation, although some took their younger or older siblings along. But it was nothing extraordinary, just some young people who went out to a party,” says Angie Almanza.

Authorities at the San José del Carmen hacienda on Sunday.
Authorities at the San José del Carmen hacienda on Sunday.JUAN MORENO (Reuters)

Salvatierra, which is controlled by the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel, like almost the entire state of Guanajuato, is in a territorial dispute with the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. The authorities have not identified who carried out the massacre at the hacienda. The Guanajuato Prosecutor’s Office has indicated in a statement that the hitmen showed up at the door and the young people did not want to let them in, stating that it was a private party. The criminals pretended to leave. The power went out. But more criminals came back, with larger weapons.

“The men immediately returned and started shooting. Nothing could be seen, only the gunshots could be heard,” a surviving victim told the newspaper AM. “I ran and fell to the floor, then everything was silent. Several of the wounded were crying out and some were asking for help. I heard one of the attackers shout: ‘Kill them all!’” That night about 50 young people were at the hacienda, but many had already gone home. The party was ending.

A burned car inside the property.
A burned car inside the property.Cuartoscuro

It is unclear how long they were inside. Angie Almanza explains that “they didn’t go after anyone in particular, they didn’t try to take anyone away. They indiscriminately attacked everyone who was at the party, including the band that was playing. There was nothing more than that: they simply kept shooting.” As they left, the hitmen burned two cars and two motorcycles belonging to the victims that were parked outside the door. It was the survivors who called the emergency services.

It was past 4:30 a.m. when Almanza’s phone started ringing. She had messages from Civil Protection, from her neighbors, from her family. “Something is happening, I thought,” says Almanza, who is part of the Consultative Council to Assist Victims of Guanajuato. “They asked me to go check because there were many bodies.” Almanza began to worry about the sun, it was going to be daylight soon, the bodies were lying in a garden and could sustain damage. They got organized very quickly with the families and the Prosecutor’s Office to go recover them.

The injured were taken to the hospital, but one of them died inside the ambulance. As of Monday night, two of the victims were still in a serious condition and three more were undergoing surgeries because the bullets had hit a bone. Another bullet shattered the hand of the band’s accordionist. “It was a hurtful act, an atrocious act,” says Almanza.

Héctor Almaraz, 16, was the youngest guest at the party that night. He is always smiling and looking affectionate in all the photos that his family has shared of him. “You were my everything, I can’t imagine a life without you. Rest easy, because you were always that little ray of light in our lives, you were like the bandaid in the soul that made everything okay,” said his sister Ximena.

Héctor Almaraz, 16, murdered by an armed commando during a party.
Héctor Almaraz, 16, murdered by an armed commando during a party.anamaurar

Juan Luis García Espitia, 36, was the oldest of the victims. He was a sound technician for music bands and had been a DJ. He leaves two children behind. This is what his wife, Yaz Múñoz, wrote about him: “On Friday you were with us, we laughed, we sang, and today I can’t believe it, today I am dragging you behind me, already dead. Wake up, please, don’t leave us. God, give him more time, my children need him, you don’t know how badly, and so do I.”

The authorities have not offered any explanation for the crime, any more than they have in the past. Two weeks ago, six medical students aged between 18 and 23 from the Universidad Latina de México were murdered in Celaya. There were no answers there either. At his daily news conference on Monday, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador simply said the same thing he said back then: that it has to do with drug use. The mother of two of the young people who were murdered in early December, Fabiola Mateos, showed the clean toxicological tests of her children and their friends to refute the president’s version of events. She asked him to rectify. He did not.

This is not the first atrocity that the state of Guanajuato has experienced, nor is it a first for the town of Salvatierra either. “It is a territory under the law of silence, controlled by a group of local lieutenants of the Santa Rosa Cartel who can do this type of thing without there being any sanction or response at the state level, let alone the municipal level,” explains the activist Raymundo Sandoval, from the Platform for Peace and Justice of Guanajuato.

In September, an armed group kidnapped 17-year-old Stephanie Espinosa in broad daylight in a public square and killed her 13-year-old brother and a friend who tried to prevent them from taking her. There is no trace of her, nor justice for them. It is in Salvatierra where a clandestine grave with more than 80 bodies was located in 2020. It is in Salvatierra where the teacher Lupita Barajas went missing, and when she was found, they killed her brother Francisco Barajas. It is in Salvatierra where there is no truce.

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