MEXICO CITY – Outrage grew in Mexico and El Salvador as Mexican authorities said Monday that an autopsy of a Salvadoran woman who died in police custody confirmed that police broke her neck.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador flatly said that Victoria Esperanza Salazar was murdered by police in the Caribbean resort of Tulum.
Victoria Esperanza Salazar let out a scream Saturday afternoon as a female police officer knelt on her back to cuff her hands behind her. Salazar was face down on the street and barefoot. Her feet flailed. A couple people passed slowly by on a bicycle. There were food stands a few yards away.
Clips of video cobbled together give no sense of how much time elapsed. Then three other officers are seen standing around her motionless body still facedown, chatting casually. Later, three officers lift her still handcuffed body into the back of a police pickup truck and drive away.
Video circulating on social media does not show events before Salazar was face down on the street with the officer on top of her.
An autopsy concluded that Salazar died from a broken neck. The examination found, “a fracture of part of the upper spinal column produced by the rupture of the first and second vertebra which caused the loss of the victim,” Quintana Roo State Prosecutor Oscar Montes de Oca said in a video.
The injuries were “compatible y coincide with submission maneuvers applied to the victim during her detention” and demonstrate a “disproportionate” use of force. He said his office was preparing femicide charges against the four police officers.
Salazar had been living in Mexico for some years on a “humanitarian visa,” El Salvador President Nayib Bukele said. “She was brutally murdered by Tulum police officers in Quintana Roo, Mexico,” the president wrote. He said the government would support Salazar’s two daughters.
“I see thousands of outraged Mexicans, demanding justice for our compatriot,” Bukele said. “They are as outraged as we are. Let us not forget that it was not the Mexican people who committed this crime, but rather some criminals in the Tulum police.”
López Obrador swore Monday that those responsible would be punished.
“She was brutally treated and murdered,” López Obrador said. “It is an event that fills us with pain and shame.”
On Monday, a small potted plant and a couple candles sat outside the convenience store where Salazar was killed. Someone wrote “Here they killed Victoria” in large purple letters on the pavement.
Salazar left Sonsonate, about an hour west of San Salvador, five years ago to look for better opportunities and escape the area’s street violence, said her mother Rosibel Emerita Arriaza. She was a single mother of two daughters.
She left her daughters with her family and made her way to Mexico. In the southern Mexico city of Tapachula, near the Guatemala border, Salazar requested and received refugee status. Mexico’s National Immigration Institute confirmed that Monday.
Once she had legal status she moved to the beach resort town of Tulum on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. A more relaxed alternative to Cancun and Playa del Carmen, Tulum had drawn crowds and was struggling with rapid growth. Salazar found work cleaning in hotels and brought her daughters, ages 16 and 15, to be with her.
On Monday, Arriaza was working with Salvadoran authorities on getting her daughter’s body repatriated. She also planned to travel to Mexico to be reunited with her granddaughters
“I want justice for my daughter, because it isn’t fair what they did to her,” Arriaza said. “She was a woman who wasn’t armed, just for being a woman and I don’t know what happened.”
Following the autopsy results, Quintana Roo state security chief Lucio Hernández Gutiérrez said that in addition to the four police officers involved in the events, Tulum’s police chief was also fired Monday.
He called the video of the killing “shameful and conclusive.”
Tulum Mayor Victor Mas Tah said “I understand and share the outrage and pain of all of society.” He said the former police officers would be jailed in the coming hours.
Manuel Barradas, owner of a small convenience store, said Salazar appeared “off” to him so when she approached his store he barred her entry. Authorities made no mention of Salazar being under the influence of anything in discussing the autopsy. Police detained her a short time later.
Protest marches were scheduled for later Monday in Tulum, Mexico City and San Salvador.
The scenes were reminiscent of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. Floyd was declared dead after a white police officer pressed his knee against the Black man’s neck for about nine minutes, holding his position even after Floyd went limp.
Floyd’s death was captured on widely seen bystander video and sparked sometimes violent protests in Minneapolis and beyond, leading to a nationwide reckoning on race. The trial for that officer began Monday in Minneapolis.
The Quintana Roo prosecutor’s office said four Tulum police officers — three men and one woman — were under investigation for their probable involvement in the Saturday evening incident. They said fingerprints and forensic evidence were being examined in the case.
“There will be no impunity for those who participated in the death of the victim, and all the force of the law will be brought to bear to bring those responsible to trial,” the office said in a statement.
The woman’s death seemed likely to ignite tensions in Quintana Roo, where police used live ammunition to ward off a throng of about 100 demonstrators in Cancun in November.
The protesters were demonstrating against the killings of women and some smashed windows and burned documents outside the city hall, while others tried to tear down a plywood barrier at an entrance.
Police fired into the air, but people were injured when protesters rushed to escape as the shots rang out. The state’s governor condemned the use of force and the state police chief was forced out.
Aleman reported from San Salvador, El Salvador. AP videojournalist Dan Christian Rojas in Tulum contributed to this report.