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Mexico: soldiers face charges, but not officials who tried to hide massacre

Last summer, members of a Mexican army patrol killed 22 suspected criminals, most of whom had surrendered. A daisy chain of politicians, prosecutors, and other officials glossed over the massacre, altering the crime scene, torturing witnesses, and denying evidence.

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    A soldier stands guard around a site where forensic examiners are searching for human remains in the densely forested mountains outside Cocula, Mexico, in October. Suspects arrested this week told prosecutors that many of the 43 students who disappeared Sept. 26 from Iguala had been held near this location.
    Rebecca Blackwell/AP/File
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More than four months have passed since members of a Mexican army patrol killed 22 suspected criminals, most of them after they’d surrendered, in a rural area southwest of Mexico City. Three soldiers now await trial on charges of first-degree murder.

But the mass killing June 30 wasn’t the only crime committed.

Once the bodies fell to the ground in an empty warehouse in the town of Tlatlaya, a daisy chain of politicians, prosecutors and other officials glossed over the massacre by altering the crime scene, torturing witnesses and denying evidence.

While the soldiers will face their day in court, none of the more powerful officials or judiciary workers who attempted to hide the atrocity or balked at a serious investigation has been disciplined or charged with a crime.

The cover-up underscores the level of impunity that some Mexican officials enjoy when they break the law. Coupled with the disappearance in September of 43 students from a teachers college – Mexican officials now think they were detained by local police, then killed by gang members and their bodies burned _ the Tlatlaya case feeds a growing anger that rule of law in Mexico is honored primarily by its breach.

“This case was the object of a deliberate cover-up by the highest authorities in Mexico, both civil and military,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, the head of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group. “We have before us two crimes, the massacre and the cover-up.”

An initial army statement portrayed events in Tlatlaya as a lopsided gunfight. It said a patrol had stumbled upon a deserted warehouse where a criminal gang kept kidnapping victims and an arsenal of weapons. A brief firefight left 22 criminals dead and a single soldier wounded.

The account was hardly believable. But a day later, the governor of the state of Mexico, Eruviel Avila Villegas, hailed the military operation in his state.

“There in Tlatlaya, the Mexican army took bold action in order to rescue three people who were kidnapped,” Avila said. “The army acted in self-defense and shot the criminals.”

News accounts by Mexican and foreign journalists cast doubt on that version. They cited witnesses and survivors who said that after a short exchange of gunfire, soldiers had entered the warehouse, where they disarmed and interrogated the alleged criminals one by one, then executed them.

Still, federal prosecutors balked at pursuing the case, waiting 12 weeks as evidence of an atrocity mounted. During that time, the investigation remained in the hands of state prosecutors under Avila’s control, who seemed determined to ensure that soldiers remained free of responsibility.

Three women survived the mayhem. One had gone to look for her daughter in the hands of the criminal gang, then been taken hostage herself. The other two had either voluntarily or forcibly been with gang members for a few days. All three were initially thought to be kidnapping victims.

In the hours after the killings, agents took the latter two to the state prosecutors’ offices in Toluca, the capital of the state of Mexico, where they demanded that the women sign false statements exonerating the soldiers, according to an extensive report released Oct. 21 by the official National Human Rights Commission. Each was tortured, one of them severely.

“They put her in a bathroom with three men who told her that ‘they could even make the dead talk.’ They pulled her hair, hit her in the ribs and covered her nose and mouth with a plastic shopping bag,” the report said, until one agent said, “The old lady is going to die on us.”

They later shoved her head into a toilet “about four times,” the report said. “A man threatened to rape her. While asking her threatening sexual questions, he dropped his pants and told her to bend over,” it said.

At that point, the survivor said she would sign anything they wanted, the report said, noting that she signed an unread statement without a lawyer present.

The other woman insisted that soldiers had killed disarmed men, but a prosecutor called her a liar and insisted that she recant, the report said.

Following those interrogations, the top prosecutor in the state of Mexico, Alejandro Gomez, said at a news conference July 17 that authorities had found “not a single sign” to indicate that a massacre had occurred.

Both women, whose names haven’t been released, were sent to a federal penitentiary in Nayarit state on Sept. 22 on charges of possession of firearms and ammunition, lawyers for independent human rights groups said.

Authorities have sought to limit blame for the mass killing to soldiers who were on patrol in Tlatlaya that day. Following the publication in mid-September of detailed news reports citing a third witness to the killings, the army said it had detained seven soldiers and an officer, apparently a lieutenant.

The federal Attorney General’s Office said three of the soldiers would face first-degree murder charges. What, if any, charges the others would face is unclear.

Authorities denied that higher-level officers had given the orders or that the killings indicated deeper problems with human rights in the armed forces. The head of the army, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, made clear this week his dismay that any soldiers face justice.

“We will contribute our effort to serve the citizenry, without suffering intimidation by unfair trials, some undoubtedly erroneous, baseless, malicious and undeserving,” Cienfuegos said at a ceremony Sunday in northern Mexico.

Such statements are among the reasons that several Mexican human rights monitors declined to discuss the case for attribution, saying it would imperil them.

Vivanco said state and federal officials had resisted or impeded efforts to investigate what occurred at Tlatlaya and to punish those responsible.

“We find it difficult to believe that no more senior officers were involved in these events, both in carrying out the crimes and in the cover-up,” he said. “We believe the cover-up is as serious as the executions.”

He added that “there is no excuse” for federal prosecutors not to open an inquiry into the use of torture by state agents on the survivors. Torture is a federal crime in Mexico, which has signed a series of international accords and conventions pledging not to engage in it.

Even so, other human rights groups say the use of torture is growing in Mexico. Amnesty International said in a report Sept. 4 that electric shocks, beatings, sexual violence and near-asphyxiations were common tactics to force confessions from detainees. It said reports of torture had climbed nearly sevenfold in the past decade. 

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