09/30/14 (written by cmolzahn) — Eight members of the Mexican Army have been apprehended for their involvement in the killing of 22 suspected members of organized crime—21 men and one female minor—in the Tlatlaya municipality of the State of Mexico (Estado de México, Edomex) near the border with Guerrero. They stand accused of violating military code, and are in the custody of the Mexican military’s legal authority (Procuraduría General de Justicia Militar). One of the detainees, a lieutenant, also faces charges of insubordination (desobediencia e infracción de deberes). These pending charges, according to Mexico’s National Defense Ministry (Secretaría de Defensa Nacional, SEDENA), are “independent of the investigations being carried out by civil authorities,” namely Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR). The eight soldiers are currently being held in a military prison.
Recent developments calling into questions official reports of the incident in Tlatlaya, which occurred on June 30, were first reported in the magazine Esquire México, based on an interview with a survivor of the incident. Her account differed widely from accounts from the Mexican Army and the Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) that the soldiers had fired on the suspected criminals in “legitimate [self] defense,” as they had come under fire during a patrol of the area. According to the survivor, who was one of three women SEDENDA said had been kidnapped by the group and used the false name Julia, agreed to an interview with Esquire México two months after the incident in which she said that it was the soldiers who fired first and that the suspected criminals returned fire. Only one of the suspects died in the confrontation, said Julia, and that during the hours that followed the soldiers interrogated the remaining 21 before executing them. She also denied having been kidnapped, but requested that Esquire México not publish her reason for being at the warehouse. She found herself there in the early morning of June 30 along with Erika Gómez González, the minor that was killed in the incident—an execution-style shot to the chest after being wounded in the leg, according to Julia.
José Miguel Vivanco, director for Human Rights Watch’s Americas division, had for weeks requested an investigation into the Tlatlaya massacre, saying that there was evidence that the soldiers had “acted in an irregular manner.” In July, the Associated Press challenged SEDENA’s claims that the suspected criminals had died in an armed confrontation, pointing out that the front of the warehouse only showed six bullet holes, and that the inside of the warehouse showed even less signs of the violent shootout that officials were maintaining took place there. On July 15, the State of Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General del Estado de México, PGJEM) issued a statement that “There were no short distance shots; the interchange of shots was proportional; according to the trajectory of the [bullets] and the position in which the bodies were found, [there does not exist] any indication of a possible execution.” Nevertheless, the AP pointed out that five spots inside the warehouse indicated holes from one or two bullets fired from close range surrounded by a splattering of blood, suggesting that the recipients had been on their feet against the wall and were shot chest-high. This is consistent with statements made by Julia, who described soldiers turning over the injured Erika Gómez and shooting her in the chest before turning her back over and placing a rifle next to her body, as appeared many of the other bodies at the scene, giving the appearance that they were armed when they were shot and killed. Also arousing suspicion were the reports that just one soldier was wounded in the supposed armed confrontation.
Following the incident in Tlatlaya, Julia said that she was in PGR custody for a week, where she was approached by members of the PGJEM, the Mexican Navy (Marina), and the PGR’s organized crime division coerced her into stating that the people who had died were criminals. She also said that she was made to sign a number of documents, but was not given copies of any of them. Finally, she added, she received no food during the first three days, and that she was photographed along with weapons seized in the warehouse.
According to the AP, the seven soldiers and one officer facing possible disciplinary action are from a battalion with a spotty history. Last December, the 102nd Infantry Battalion of the 22nd Military Zone was in the news following an incident in which some of its members fired on a truck carrying several municipal employees from Arcelia, where several who died in Tlatlaya on June 30 were from. In February 2012, reports surfaced in the national news that members of the 102nd had sold operational information to the La Familia Michoacana criminal organization.
If Julia’s accounts are verified, this would represent the worst massacre carried out by the Mexican armed forces since President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in December 2012. Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong has maintained that should this be the case, it would be “an isolated action and not the general behavior of the Army and Navy.” José Miguel Vivanco, however, stresses that the massacre is just one side of the problem, and that it is now the “cover-up” that needs to be investigated thoroughly to discover any official—military or civilian—who helped in hiding the true events from the public. Moreover, the case will prove to be the first high-profile challenge for recent changes to Mexico’s justice system allowing personnel of the armed forces accused of committing abuses against civilians to be tried in civilian courts. Javier Oliva, security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, UNAM), said that the event underscores the risks of an overdependence on the armed forces to perform security functions for which local authorities no longer take responsibility.