Mexico agency hears witness of army-gang faceoff

Mexico agency hears witness of army-gang faceoff

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ARCELIA, Mexico (AP) — Mexico's Civil Rights Commission said Friday it has talked to a witness in the case of a June 30 slaying of 22 people at a warehouse in southern Mexico.

The Associated Press interviewed the witness, who claimed soldiers killed 20 men and one woman after they surrendered following a confrontation.

The U.S. State Department urged Mexico to investigate the case, saying it is "imperative that there is a credible review of the circumstances."

Mexican Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said federal prosecutors would investigate the shootings and make the results public if it finds any contradictions in the army's version of events.

The army has said soldiers came under fire from a gang of armed men at an abandoned grain warehouse and the troops returned fire in self-defense, killing 22 people and rescuing three kidnap victims unharmed.

However, the mother of the only female killed said she witnessed the June 30 incident and only one of the gunmen died in a brief, initial battle with soldiers. She said the 20 other men and her daughter were killed after they surrendered.

Human Rights Commission investigator Marat Paredes Montiel said commission staff had talked with the witness almost two months ago and were investigating the case to see what really happened.

"We have recently been given access to the case file and the autopsies," Paredes Montiel said. "We are analyzing this data."

The governmental agency has the power to issue recommendations that government entities have to either obey, or explain publicly why they won't.

On Friday, U.S. State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke, speaking to reporters in Washington, said that "we have seen these most recent reports and we've been following this case since June."

"We have encouraged the government of Mexico to investigate and we understand that several Mexican entities are investigating this incident," Rathke said. "But as in all cases where security forces use lethal force, we think it's imperative that there is a credible review of the circumstances undertaken in response to them and the appropriate civilian authorities should conduct those investigations."

In an interview with Radio Formula, Osorio Chong, Mexico's top security official, said the federal Attorney General's Office was leading the investigation.

"Anything that needs to be made known, if something happened that differs from the version we have, will of course be made public," Osorio Chong said.

Later Friday, the Attorney General's Office said in a statement that from the beginning it assigned a team of experts to conduct a thorough investigation.

"It is our responsibility to clarify with precision whether the acts (of the soldiers) were carried out according to the law and with absolute respect to human rights," it said.

Mexico's Defense Department said in a statement late Friday that it "wants more than anyone for this incident to be investigated thoroughly."

"The Defense Department will cooperate without restrictions so that the appropriate authorities can clear up the facts and determine the legal truth of this event," the statement said.

The comments came after an AP story quoted the mother telling about witnessing the bloodshed and saying soldiers fatally shoot her 15-year-old daughter even though the girl was lying wounded on the ground.

The army's version came into question because government troops suffered only one wounded, and physical evidence at the scene pointed toward more selective killings.

The witness, who asked to be quoted by name for fear of reprisals, said soldiers interrogated the men after they surrendered in front of the warehouse and then took them inside one-by-one. From where she stood just outside the warehouse and in army custody, she heard gunshots and moans of the dying.

Interviewed separately, relatives of three other gang members who were killed and a doctor who saw the daughter's body said the wounds were consistent with the mother's account of how they were killed - with an incapacitating wound and a burst of gunshots to the chest.

Several days after the killings, AP reporters visited and took pictures of the warehouse and found little evidence of sustained fighting. There were few stray bullet marks and no shell casings. At least five spots along the warehouse's inside walls showed the same pattern: One or two closely placed bullet pocks, surrounded by a mass of spattered blood, giving the appearance that some of those killed had been standing against the wall and shot at about chest level.

In July, the state of Mexico prosecutors' office released a statement saying there was "no evidence at all of possible executions." The office said it found ballistic evidence of "crossfire with a proportionate interchange of gunshots."

The state government refused to release autopsy reports that the AP requested under Mexico's freedom of information law, declaring them state secrets to be guarded for nine years.

"If the testimony is true, we are facing one of the most serious massacres in Mexico," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch for the Americas. "It's extremely important that we keep pressure on the officials so that hopefully soon they produce the records that should be scrutinized by the public in Mexico."

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