- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 1, 2014

MEXICO CITY (AP) - For more than two months, Mexico did little to explain how a Mexican army patrol escaped practically unharmed from a gunfight that left 22 suspected criminals dead in a grain warehouse. This week, officials changed their story to say soldiers may have committed murder, but questions about the lop-sided confrontation remain.

Why did state prosecutors and the army quickly declare soldiers had behaved appropriately in killing the suspects on June 30? Why did federal prosecutors wait until September to investigate the crime scene? Why haven’t investigators interviewed a woman who witnessed the slayings? Did higher-ranking officers know about, or order, the killings?

The deaths in San Pedro Limon, a mountain town about 95 miles southwest of Mexico City, have caught the attention of international human rights groups, the United Nations and Mexicans who recall previous cases of suspicious deaths and disappearances that authorities attempted to explain away. Doubts about the official version of events gained strength following an Associated Press investigation into the killings.

Last week, Mexico’s Defense Department announced an officer and seven soldiers would face military discipline for their roles in the killings. Then, on Tuesday, federal prosecutors said three of the soldiers, all privates, will be charged with homicide for opening fire “with no justification whatsoever.”

Questions immediately arose about how the three could kill the suspects without any of them trying to run away or resist. The walls of the warehouse are marked with clusters of shots fired at chest-level. There are no signs of stray shots or sprayed gunfire that would have come if the three soldiers had mowed down the group with automatic fire.

President Enrique Pena Nieto seemed eager Wednesday to assure the public that the probe isn’t over.

“The Defense Department and the Attorney General’s Office are currently conducting an exhaustive investigation … that I trust will allow us to learn the truth,” Pena Nieto said, adding that another probe by the governmental human rights commission is still pending.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch, said the explanation so far raises doubts.

“It’s very hard to believe that three soldiers acting on their own could have slaughtered 22 people and successfully convinced the entire Mexican government that it was a shootout,” he said.

Pena Nieto’s credibility on human rights, Vivanco said, “depends on whether he holds accountable everyone responsible for both the massacre and cover-up.”

The developments come as Mexico is following the news of the disappearance of more than 40 university students from a town in Guerrero, about 50 miles from San Pedro Limon. Supporters say some of them were last seen in the custody of police following a weekend protest. And, on Sunday, an unknown gunman killed a Guerrero state political leader who was dining with his family at a seafront hotel in Acapulco.

According to Attorney General Murillo Karam’s explanation of the June 30 killings, the three privates entered the grain warehouse where the suspected gang members had taken refuge after a brief gunfight in which one of them was killed. While their lieutenant and four other soldiers waited outside, the three opened fire without provocation.

Murillo Karam’s version of events seemed to depict suspects standing by quietly, awaiting their turn, while their companions were executed.

“Doesn’t it seem strange that eight soldiers face off against 22 suspects and all the deaths are on the side of those with numeric superiority?” said Mexico City-based security analyst Alejandro Hope. “What was this, a squad of Rambos? Or had the suspects already been disarmed? Whichever way, this doesn’t smell good.”

Federal officials appear to have waited until mid-September to do any forensic examination of the warehouse, which had been left open to curiosity seekers, vandals and the elements since the killings. Their probe came weeks after AP reporters visited the site July 3 and found chest-high bullet holes surrounded by blood, suggesting that the suspects were killed while standing against or near the wall and that they were shot precisely rather than in a messy gunbattle.

A witness to the killings has described it as a massacre. She told The Associated Press the majority of the soldiers present participated, not just three. And, she said, 21 suspects, including her 15-year-old daughter, were killed after they surrendered.

The witness, who asked not to be quoted by name for fear of retribution, told the AP she has not been interviewed by federal prosecutors. Only recently was she questioned by the government’s National Human Rights Commission, even though it is responsible for investigating such abuse allegations. Members of the commission, she said, acted “arrogantly” and tried to force her to return to the warehouse where her daughter died. An inspector for the commission was not immediately available to comment.

According to the witness, the soldiers re-arranged the bodies to make it appear there had been a shootout. Her account appeared to be supported by photos of the crime scene that were sent anonymously to local media last week. The images showed bodies fallen in unnatural positions, weapons in their hands or leaning oddly by their sides.

Officials have refused to release autopsy reports, saying they are classified as state secrets for nine years.

Two other women reported to have witnessed the killings are currently in jail on weapons charges, off limits to reporters.

Murillo Karam has offered no explanation for why state prosecutors initially determined the soldiers acted appropriately.

Some said his announcement of homicide charges raised memories of the old days of his party, the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, when officials covered up high-profile crimes by prosecuting low-level offenders.

“The civilian justice system has been totally discredited and looks very bad,” said Raul Benitez, a security expert at Mexico’s National Autonomous University. “It looks as if they don’t perform objective investigations, but rather do them for political purposes and to cover up crimes.”

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