WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
18 May 2016 | Commentary

Release of Three Soldiers Accused of Extrajudicial Killings Raises Further Questions about Mexico’s Commitment to Justice

On May 13, 2016, Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) announced a federal judge’s decision to release three soldiers charged in the “Tlatlaya massacre”—the massacre of 22 civilians in Tlatlaya, State of Mexico on June 30, 2014. WOLA expresses deep concern that Mexican authorities have failed to sanction the perpetrators of extrajudicial killings even in this emblematic case where there is clear evidence of the crime.

According to documentation by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH), at least 12 to 15 of the 22 civilians killed in the confrontation were executed by soldiers after surrendering. A document made public by the Mexican organization Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center (Centro Prodh) revealed that the soldiers involved in the massacre were following a “General Operating Order” to carry out patrols and “take out [abatir] criminals in the darkness of the night, given that most crimes are committed during those hours.”

As WOLA has stated previously, evidence of this military order to take out, or kill, criminals casts doubt on the government’s official narrative of what happened in Tlatlaya. It also underscores the need to investigate whether civilians killed during other cases of confrontation with the military may have in fact been unlawful killings.

Mexico has an alarmingly high number of civilian fatalities from confrontations with security forces. This “fatality index” for the Mexican Army was 7.7 in 2013 and 11.4 in the first quarter of 2014, the last period when the Defense Ministry (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, Sedena) recorded this information. An index above 1 is considered an abuse of force. Additionally, the kill order highlights the need to investigate the chain of command, meaning who issued the order as well as who within the Defense Ministry tolerated these actions.

After international press brought the Tlatlaya massacre to light and a survivor and witness, Clara Gómez, spoke out, seven lower-ranking members of the Mexican Army’s 102nd Infantry Battalion were investigated and charged in both civilian and military jurisdiction. In military jurisdiction, six of the seven soldiers were acquitted of crimes related to military discipline; one was sentenced to a year in prison for “disobedience” and has already served his sentence.

In civilian jurisdiction, four soldiers that were charged with abuse of authority, improper performance of their duties, and alteration of a crime scene were released in October 2015. Now the three soldiers that were charged with homicide, cover-up, and alteration of evidence, have been released due to “lack of elements to prosecute” them.

The federal judge that released these three soldiers came to this conclusion in part by using witness testimony that was obtained through torture. The CNDH had previously determined that the three witnesses in the case were submitted to torture and cruel and inhumane treatment in order to influence their initial testimony; however, the judge still prioritized this initial testimony that supported the government’s official narrative of the case.

Human rights organizations in Mexico are highlighting the Tlatlaya case as further “confirmation that justice for victims of human rights violations and military abuses is very far from being a reality in Mexico.” The failure to effectively prosecute the soldiers responsible for this massacre is a clear sign of the impunity that prevails in human rights violations committed by Mexican soldiers. Since 2007, despite thousands of complaints submitted to the CNDH against the Mexican Army, only two soldiers have been convicted in civilian jurisdiction for grave human rights violations. In August 2015, an Army sub-lieutenant was sentenced to 31 years of prison for enforced disappearance, and in April 2016, an Army general was sentenced to 52 years of prison for torture, homicide, and destroying human remains.

The Attorney General’s Office has stated that it will provide new evidence to prosecute soldiers so that the crimes committed in Tlatlaya do not remain unpunished. WOLA urges Mexican authorities to take all the necessary steps to fully investigate this massacre and to effectively sanction the perpetrators. The Mexican government should also ensure the safety of Clara Gómez as a witness and victim in this grave case.

If Mexico does not effectively investigate and prosecute the soldiers involved in the Tlatlaya massacre, as well as their superiors, it would send a clear message of the government’s inability or unwillingness to ensure that Mexican soldiers who violate human rights face justice for the crimes they have committed.