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Before carnage, Mexican army was told: ‘Take out’ criminals

This file photo shows the warehouse where 22 alleged gang members were killed by soldiers in Tlatlaya last year. A human rights groups said Thursday the soldiers had been given orders to “take out” criminals. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File)

The Mexican soldiers who killed 22 people last year in a town called Tlatlaya had been ordered by their superiors to "take out" criminals at night, according to military documents presented by a Mexican human rights group on Thursday.

One year after the killings at a grain warehouse about 150 miles southwest of the capital — during which several people were apparently lined up against a wall and shot — the incident has become an emblematic case in the debate over how Mexican soldiers and police use force in their war against drug cartels. Taken with other recent mass killings — including the 43 teachers college students who disappeared in Guerrero state last year — human rights groups see a pattern of excessive violence and disregard for due process.

The new report on the case by the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center brought to light military documents that the group says show a direct order to kill, rather than arrest, suspected criminals.

“Soldiers should operate at night in a massive way and reduce daytime activities, with the aim of taking out criminals at night,” said the orders, signed by the commander of the army’s 102nd Infantry Battalion nearly three weeks before the June 30, 2014, killings. The human rights group argues that in this context, the Spanish word for “take out” — “abatir” — means to kill. It also notes that soldiers’ testimony in the investigation repeatedly used that word to describe the killings that day.

Officials from the human rights group called on the Mexican government to investigate the military’s chain of command to find out how the order originated and whether it applies in other parts of Mexico where aggressive military operations continue.

“In this case, there was a clear order from higher up that the soldiers’ mission was to go out and take down, kill, people they considered criminals,” said Maureen Meyer, a Mexico expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. “It was the first time you actually see a written document describing what a lot of people suspect happens in many cases.”

A presidential spokesman said the Mexican government would not comment until the investigation into the case had been completed.

The army initially said that a patrol had come under attack and that in the ensuing gun battle 22 people were killed. But subsequent investigations, prompted by witness testimony, have indicated that after a brief exchange of fire, several people who had surrendered or were unarmed were then executed by the soldiers. So far, the government has brought charges against seven soldiers in the deaths of eight of the people. Authorities have also charged seven police officers in the torture of three witnesses. No one has been convicted.

Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission concluded in its investigation that 12 to 15 of the people had been executed.

Clara Gómez González, whose daughter was killed that day, spoke publicly for the first time on Thursday at a news conference in Mexico City. “I want justice to be done, justice for what they did to my daughter,” she said, according to the Associated Press. “God will not forgive them.”

Since the Tlatlaya killings, other deadly incidents have drawn further criticism about the behavior of Mexican security forces. In the case of the teachers college students, the government has accused local police of working with a drug cartel to capture, kill and burn 43 people. Although independent investigators have challenged aspects of the government's version of events, they have not questioned the role of police in the students' disappearances. More recently, the deaths of 42 people on a ranch in the state of Michoacan, many of them suspected of having ties to drug cartels, has raised questions about whether the event was a shootout, as authorities insist, or a roundup in which some of the people were tortured and shot, as their families insist.