Polices officers look for evidence at a ranch where a firefight took place in Tanhuato, in the state of Michoacan. Government security forces killed 42 suspected drug cartel members. (Henry Romero/Reuters)

— At the makeshift shrine for the Warriors of the Five, the young men are listed by their gang handles: Chicken. Nacho. Whitey. In the photos, some have elaborate tattoos, others brandish guns.

Eleven of the men killed by police this month in one of the deadliest clashes of Mexico’s drug war came from the blocks of Infonavit 5, a poor bar-and-brothel neighborhood in this farming town in Jalisco state. The relatives and neighbors who stop to pay tribute don’t dispute that at least some of them may have worked for the New Generation drug cartel. But that label means little here.

They don’t see them as gangsters but as childhood friends who guarded homes, watched parked cars, kept drunks from disrespecting the women. It’s the police, they say, who will take things from the corner store without paying, shake you down on your walk home, make your 12-year-old daughter unbutton her shirt.

“People don’t go out on the street because they’re afraid of the government,” said Graciela Piñeda, whose 21-year-old son, Martin García, was the second of her boys to be killed by authorities in the past three years. “These boys never disrespected anyone. They took care of us.”

The questions about who these men were, and how they died, are at the center of a growing controversy over what happened May 22 behind the chain-link fence of the Rancho del Sol in Michoacan state. In the government version of events, Mexican police, after coming under fire, followed a truck onto the 275-acre property along the four-lane divided highway running between Guadalajara and Morelia. Over the next three hours that morning, backed by helicopters and reinforcements, they battled the gunmen belonging to what the national security commissioner, Monte Alejandro Rubido, described as the country’s “most belligerent cartel,” until 42 of them lay dead. The police lost one man and made three arrests.

Musicians accompany a hearse at a funeral for one of the slain men from Rancho del Sol. (Joshua Partlow/The Washington Post)

Authorities hailed the operation as a victory. They denied that any of the men were executed and said all tested positive for ballistic residue. But human rights officials have begun to investigate the case after questions emerged about the lopsided death toll and whether the bodies showed signs of torture. The police operation was “at the very least poorly planned, leading to a death toll that raises serious concerns about the proportionality of the use of force,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch.

“This outcome is particularly disturbing in a country where security forces have repeatedly been involved in extrajudicial killings, disappearances and torture cases, and where impunity for these grave human rights crimes is the norm,” he said.

More than half of those who died came from Ocotlan, a city of about 100,000 people set amid strawberry and alfalfa fields roughly an hour’s drive from the ranch. At the municipal cemetery, gravediggers have been working double shifts in recent days to handle the burials.

At one funeral for a man from Infonavit 5, as mariachis played sad ballads and relatives poured whiskey into the casket, the crowd chanted curses against the government. “This was a very pretty town once, but not anymore,” said an aunt of the dead man, who refused to give her name.“There is a lot of fear now.”

“The government caught them sleeping and murdered them all,” another man said as he left the service. “It was a massacre.”

Martin Felipe García Piñeda grew up in Ocotlan and started working at the age of 15, bouncing among low-paying jobs such as security guard and gas station attendant. His passion was wrestling, the flamboyant masked spectacle known as lucha libre. His ring name was El Drako. The sport took him to regional cities and even the capital, but he earned little from it, and this spring he told his family that he — along with several friends from the neighborhood — had started working at Rancho del Sol.

The farm had a large main residence, with a swimming pool and tennis court, that was sometimes rented out for parties. Authorities said that gunmen from the New Generation cartel seized the property this month as a base of operations.

Luis Gerardo Garcia, 27, is the brother of Martin Felipe Garcia Piñeda, one of those killed at Rancho del Sol. He stands outside a shrine to the slain men in his neighborhood. (Joshua Partlow/The Washington Post)

“He told me he was going to work on a ranch, but he didn’t tell me what he was doing,” said Graciela Piñeda, his mother.

When she got his body back two days after his death, she said her son was “beaten and burned.”

Piñeda and her relatives and friends from the neighborhood have studied photographs that have surfaced on the Internet of the corpses lying around the farm. Some have visible burns and broken limbs. Other neighbors told them their children’s bodies came back castrated, or with fingers chopped off, missing teeth and eyes. They take these signs to mean their sons were tortured and executed, rather than dying in a gun battle as police allege.

“They call themselves the government,” said Luis Gerardo García, Martin’s brother. “To me, they are assassins with a license.”

Even before the battle at Rancho del Sol, tensions between residents and police in Ocotlan had risen. In March, gunmen ambushed a federal police patrol in the city, killing five police officers and at least six other people. It was one of several recent attacks attributed to the New Generation cartel, which has grown into one of the country’s most powerful drug gangs. Cartel members attacked a state police convoy the next month and killed 15 officers. A few weeks later, they shot down a military helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade.

After the Ocotlan ambush, residents in Infonavit 5 said, police began patrolling the neighborhood, harassing residents and stealing watches and cellphones. Many consider the young men who died, and the New Generation cartel, as defenders against such aggressions. It was the cartel, said Luis Gerardo García, that delivered mattresses and blankets when homes were flooded and sent truckloads of toys and bicycles to kids for Christmas.

“There are gang members here,” he said. “But they make sure that nobody robs, nobody extorts, nobody kidnaps. They don’t mess with the people here.”

Now that García’s brother and 10 others from the neighborhood have died, residents say they are worried and scared. At Martin García’s gym, his fellow wrestlers knelt in the ring and applauded in his honor, then rose chanting “Drako.” Outside the shrine to the Warriors of the Five, a car pulled up and one of the boys’ favorite songs, “One Million Bullets,” could be heard.

Looking on from a plastic chair, Graciela Piñeda wondered: “Who’s going to protect us now?”