A court in Mexico ordered the re-arrest of seven soldiers on abuse of authority charges for the 2014 army killings of suspects in a grain warehouse.
The ruling made public Thursday re-opens the thorny question of army executions, just two days after the army killed 14 suspects in a lopsided shootout in the southern state of Guerrero.
The June 2014 massacre involved soldiers who killed 22 suspects at the warehouse in the town of Tlatlaya. While some died in an initial shootout with the army patrol — in which one soldier was wounded — a human rights investigation later showed that at least eight and perhaps as many as a dozen suspects were executed after they surrendered.
“This ruling confirms what survivors and rights organizations have been saying for five years, that there were illegal executions,” said the MA Pro human rights group. “It shows that civilian and military authorities covered up the homicides.”
The soldiers had been acquitted or had civilian criminal charges against them dismissed years ago, though three were still serving sentences for military-code violations.
But relatives of two of the victims appealed the dismissal of the civilian criminal charges. They won last week’s ruling, which was only made public Thursday.
The court also ordered three of the seven soldiers to also stand trial on charges of altering evidence at the crime scene.
Investigations showed survivors and witnesses had been threatened and tortured, bodies moved and weapons planted at the scene. Forensic evidence showed many of the dead had been lined up against walls and shot while raising their hands in instinctive acts of self-defense.
However, Juan Ibarrola, a newspaper columnist and expert on Mexico’s armed forces, said that given the difficulty of reconstructing the events, “I think it will be hard” for prosecutors to win convictions.
“This has not gone unpunished,” he said.
But Tuesday’s shooting on a narrow road in Guerrero, in which 14 suspects and one army corporal were killed, once again brought up doubts about lopsided tolls in army shootouts.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the army corporal was manning a machine gun mounted on the patrol truck that ran into suspects armed with assault rifles travelling in a convoy of vehicles.
“They wound him, he dies in the end, and he, wounded, with his machine gun, still manages to kill the assailants,” López Obrador said.
Doubts arose about how a mortally wounded soldier could have killed so many suspects. The army distributed photos of the smashed-up double cab pickup truck, with suspects’ bodies piled in the bed, the cab and around the back and sides of the vehicle. Local sources in Guerrero said the attacker appeared to belong to the Guerreros Unidos gang.
The Defense Department trumpeted progress this week, saying it is now capturing more attackers alive than dead, the reverse of what had been true only a few years ago.
But on average, the death tolls in shootouts with federal forces remain enormously lopsided; only about one member of the military or federal police died for every 10 attackers so far this year, similar to past years.
Ibarrola, the army expert, said the president’s story was credible, pointing out the corporal was mounted on a gun stand high above the attackers, and was armed with a squad machinegun that can fire hundreds of powerful bullets in a minute.
Ibarrola said it appears only about 50 rounds were fired from the machine gun.
The government’s National Human Rights Commission said Thursday it was launching an investigation and sending a team of experts to investigate the scene of Tuesday’s confrontation in the hamlet of Tepochica, Guerrero.
López Obrador has publicly stated he wants to avoid confrontations, frequently saying “you can’t fight violence with more violence.” In recent months, army squads have allowed themselves to be disarmed or captured by angry crowds rather than opening fire.
But such pacifism may be fading following Tuesday’s confrontation and the Monday slaughter of 13 state police officers in the western state of Michoacan by cartel gunmen.
Ibarrola noted that confrontations like the one on Guerrero “are going to become more common.”