MORELIA, Mexico (AP) — Mexican officials stood by their account Monday of a shootout that killed 42 suspected criminals and one federal police officer last week, dismissing questions raised about the lopsided death toll.
"There was not one single execution, I can say that categorically," Enrique Galindo, head of Mexico's federal police, told local media.
The 42 men died Friday during a three-hour gun battle on a ranch in Michoacan state. Officials say the fight began when police officers came under fire while responding to a report of armed men taking over the Rancho del Sol, in Ecuandureo, a township near the border with Jalisco state.
It was the deadliest such confrontation in recent memory and followed two deadly clashes in the area controlled by the powerful Jalisco New Generation cartel: The gang is blamed for an ambush that killed 15 state police officers in April and for a May 1 attack in which a rocket launcher shot down an army helicopter, killing eight soldiers.
Families of some of the men killed on Friday told The Associated Press that after viewing the remains of their loved ones, they doubted the official account. Relatives gathered at a local morgue said one body was missing an eye and had facial bruising, another had its teeth knocked inward. Another had a gunshot in the top of the head.
Galindo said a helicopter gunship had participated in the shootout and that its role had been decisive. "If the helicopter had not arrived, the death toll might have been different."
National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido said at a news conference later Monday that the helicopter had been hit three times by bullets from an AR-15 assault rifle.
Authorities detained three people and confiscated 38 semi-automatic weapons, two smaller arms, a grenade launcher and a .50-caliber rifle. They had initially said they seized 40 weapons.
Speaking to the television network Televisa earlier Monday, Rubido said tests on the bodies of the victims showed they had been shot "from a considerable distance ... dozens of meters (yards)," ruling out anybody having been finished off at close range.
An official from Michoacan state, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press, said all the dead were men and most died from gunfire.
Rubido said the three men arrested were "the only three who when told to surrender, did so. The others refused and continued shooting."
But the lopsided death toll, and photographs from the scene in which bodies appeared to have been moved, raised questions about the official version.
Family members who arrived at the morgue in the state capital, Morelia, to retrieve the bodies spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals, but some were willing to provide the names of their dead relatives. Many were from Ocotlan in Jalisco state and said that a group of at least 25 men from the town had gone to the ranch after being offered work.
Juan Enrique Romero Caudillo, 34, was one of those men. Family members said he sold scrap metal to make a living.
"He said he had been offered maintenance work at the ranch," said a relative, adding that Romero didn't belong to a gang.
After seeing his corpse, the relative said Romero had been shot in the head from above and there was bruising on his face. On the death certificate, the cause of death was listed as "destruction of the brain mass due to penetration by a projectile from a firearm." It did not say if the gunshot was from close range or far away.
Romero's relative said he believed what happened on the ranch "was a massacre" not a shootout with criminal gunmen.
Relatives of Mario Alberto Valencia Vazquez, 22, said he worked in a furniture business but had been offered employment on the ranch.
One relative said Valencia's teeth had been knocked inward as if "he had been struck by something" and his body showed signs of having received blows. Another woman said her husband's face had been destroyed and was missing an eye.
Photographs from the site showed the bodies of men, some without shirts or barefoot, strewn over the ranch. Some appeared to lie with semi-automatic rifles in a field with farm equipment and others on a blood-stained patio strewn with clothes, mattresses and sleeping bags. Video of the battle obtained by The Associated Press showed federal police officers coming under fire.
Rubido dismissed photos circulating online, saying some were not from Friday's events and others were captured at different points in time.
The debate recalled a June 30 case in Tlatlaya, a rural community in Mexico state in which the army initially said 22 suspected criminals were killed in a confrontation and only one soldier had been wounded. An investigation by The Associated Press revealed that several of the suspects were executed after surrendering. Seven soldiers have been charged with wrongdoing.
"This is in no way anything like what happened in Tlatlaya," Galindo said. Officials say overwhelming power and training — police used four armored cars and the helicopter in the shootout — as well as the suspects' lack of preparation spelled the difference.
And Galindo noted that not all of the suspects at the ranch were killed. Three surrendered and were taken into custody, and a significant number escaped.
"We calculate there could have been between 60 and 70 people, because some fled," Galindo said.
Rubido said the cartel gunmen invaded the ranch last Monday, but the ranch owner, who lives in Guadalajara, did not report the takeover to authorities until Thursday. The gunmen were seeking a safe place to escape the government's pressure in Jalisco, Rubido said.
A convoy of 42 federal police were headed to the ranch to investigate when fired upon Friday morning, Rubido said. About 60 additional personnel joined them after 1 ½ hours of the battle.
Associated Press writer Christopher Sherman in Mexico City contributed to this report.