MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico's transparency watchdog denied an appeal to release autopsy reports on 42 suspects killed by federal police in a gunbattle last year, backing the government's position with a decision that drew criticism from human rights groups Wednesday.
One police officer died in what authorities described as a clash with drug cartel suspects in the western state of Michoacan on May 22, but the lopsided 42-1 death toll drew suspicion.
The National Institute for Information Access last month ruled against a freedom-of-information request filed by The Associated Press in October. The quasi-independent agency ruled the information should be kept as a state secret for five years.
The institute also took the government's side in denying there was any evidence that human rights violations occurred at the ranch where the shooting occurred. It said it had reviewed the 12 volumes of reports in the case file on the events in Tanhuato, Michoacan, and essentially said the evidence indicated federal police acted correctly.
"It was not possible to find any data that would allow one to conclude ... that there was any arbitrary, summary or illegal execution" at the ranch, the agency said in its ruling. "There was no indication, in an initial review, of any suspicious or unclear conduct on the part of security forces."
More broadly, the institute said that after reviewing the case files, "there was no indication of acts that would constitute serious rights violations" of any kind.
The Tanhuato deaths were one of three cases of suspiciously lopsided death tolls in Mexico cited in a report issued Wednesday by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, a body of the Organization of American States.
"These situations call for a review of the use of force in Mexico in keeping with the principles of legality, absolute necessity, and proportionality," the commission said. "Furthermore, it demands the adoption and implementation of accountability measures by a body that is independent of all security forces."
The OAS commission also criticized what it called "a gradual regression in terms of active transparency policies and public information regarding the deaths of civilians" in regard to such cases. It said Mexico's military forces have stopped publicly reporting the number of suspects killed by troops.
The federal Attorney General's Office denied the AP's initial request in October for ballistics and autopsy reports on those killed in Tanhuato, arguing the information might affect an investigation.
The AP appealed the denial under a rule that permits redacted versions of reports to be released in cases involving serious human rights violations. But the institute said it found no evidence of such violations.
The Americas director for Human Rights Watch, Jose Miguel Vivanco, called the ruling a step backward for the institute, known by its Spanish initials as the INAI.
"With this ruling, the INAI is not only abandoning the basic principles of openness and transparency it's supposed to uphold, it's also giving the Attorney General's Office a green light to keep the public in the dark about very serious human rights abuses," Vivanco wrote.
The Mexican government has denied extra-judicial killings in the case, saying federal police responded after coming under fire.
But the government also initially denied any misconduct in a June 2014 massacre in Mexico State where the army said 22 alleged gang members were killed in a shootout that injured one soldier. An AP investigation at the scene indicated the dead were lined up and shot against a wall. Three soldiers have been charged in that case.
Mexican security forces have long had suspiciously high "lethality" rates, the ratio of suspects killed versus soldiers or police killed. The army's rate in recent years averaged as a high as 19 to 1, which the report from the OAS commission called "alarmingly high," and similar or greater figures appeared to apply to federal police confrontations.
This story has been corrected to show that the ruling was made last month.