MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico's Defense Department said Thursday it will obey a recommendation by the country's National Human Rights Commission that the army investigate the panel's findings that soldiers executed up to 15 criminal suspects in late June.
The recommendation also requires the army to compensate relatives of the victims of the June 30 slayings and do more to train soldiers to avoid such killings and ensure military personnel don't alter crime scenes.
The department said it does not agree with all the findings in the commission's report, but "has decided to accept (the recommendation) out of a special interest in cooperating to clear up the case, and if any military personnel have engaged in illegal conduct ... they be punished in accordance with the law."
The commission issued an investigative report in late October that found evidence that five soldiers had probably executed 15 suspects after a gunfight at a grain warehouse in southern Mexico.
The army initially said 22 suspects all died in a fierce gunbattle with troops after a patrol came under fire at the warehouse in the town of San Pedro Limon in the State of Mexico. It said at the time that only one soldier had been wounded, and the lopsided casualties quickly drew suspicion.
The Associated Press reported on July 8 that bullet marks and bloodstains on the walls of the warehouse indicated some of the suspects might have been executed.
However, the rights commission found that someone, probably soldiers, had not only executed the youthful suspects, but also beat some before killing them and broke one suspect's neck. The report also found that someone, probably soldiers, moved the bodies in the warehouse, altered the crime scene and planted guns next to some of the corpses.
While seven low-ranking soldiers, including a lieutenant, have been charged in the case, the rights commission quoted witnesses as saying a possibly higher-ranking officer might have participated in the killings. The commission said the army should investigate the possible participation of anyone higher up in the chain of command.
The federal Attorney General's Office has said eight suspects were executed, apparently by only three soldiers.
Charges have been brought against the seven soldiers in a civilian court. All seven face charges of "actions improper to the public service," but the three who allegedly carried out the executions have been charged with aggravated homicide. They all face separate disciplinary charges in military courts.
In September, a witness told The Associated Press and Esquire magazine that the soldiers killed 21 of the suspected gang members after they surrendered at the warehouse following a shootout that killed one suspect. On Wednesday, the Interior Department said it has agreed on protective measures for that witness, who said she feared reprisals. The Associated Press has withheld the woman's name.
The Interior Department said it had met with other government agencies and the woman's representatives to decide how to provide protection. The department said in a statement that "the government recognizes the contribution of the victim-witness to the investigation" of the killings and is committed to protecting her.
She said in September that agents of the Mexico State prosecutors' office photographed her next to weapons confiscated at the warehouse and was told she also would be arrested if she didn't cooperate with authorities and confirm their version of events. The witness said two women detained at the warehouse had been tortured and threatened with rape if they didn't support the army's version.
The commission's report also said prosecutors tortured the other two female witnesses, who remain in prison on weapons charges.