MEXICO CITY — Eleven members of a family were found shot to death in central Mexico in what observers initially thought might be religiously motivated killings, but a law enforcement official now says was a revenge attack by an alleged rapist against a victim whose complaint had jailed him.
The attacks Thursday night targeted a couple, their children and other relatives in the remote hamlet of San Jose el Mirador in the municipality of Coxcatlan, Puebla state.
Coxcatlan Mayor Vicente Lopez de la Vega said the dead included five women, four men and two girls. Two other children were wounded and were being treated at a hospital.
Lopez de la Vega said the hamlet’s residents, who are largely evangelical Protestants, had disagreements with a neighboring village that is mostly Roman Catholic, suggesting that confessional rivalries linked to land disputes may have been the cause of the violence.
On Saturday, however, a law enforcement official told reporters that the main suspect is the alleged rapist, who, along with another man, assaulted the family. In addition to the fatalities, the official said, the attackers also slashed a man who may have been the rape victim’s partner, in an apparent attempt to decapitate him.
Five witnesses survived and were under government protection. They told authorities the attackers arrived by foot, opened fire and left. Prosecutors said they are believed to have fled into the mountains of neighboring Oaxaca state.
Authorities have not released the names of the victims or the suspects.
The area has not been particularly hard hit by the drug violence raging in much of Mexico, but drug cultivation and land disputes are not uncommon.
The initial suspicion of religious overtones to the slayings reflect a recent history in the area of conflict between traditionalist Roman Catholics and Mexico’s surging Evangelical Protestant community.
Such incidents often pit recent converts to evangelical faiths against Catholics in rural communities where land, water or other rights are tied to community membership.
In 2003, in southern Chiapas state, about a half-dozen people died in an outbreak of religious violence.
In September 2011, a group of about 70 Protestant Christians in the village of San Rafael Tlanalapan in Puebla state were issued an ultimatum: Leave immediately, or be “crucified” or “lynched.” Traditionalist Catholics in the village, located about 60 miles from Mexico City, threatened to burn down their homes and kill any Protestants who remained.
After the intervention of government authorities, the Protestants were eventually allowed to remain and to construct a small church far from the town center.
One Evangelical organization in Mexico claims that almost 50,000 Protestants have been dislodged from their homes due to conflicts with Catholics over the past thirty years, while hundreds of people have been injured in violent altercations and possibly dozens killed.