(New York) – Mexico should ensure that its investigation into the killing of 22 civilians by soldiers on June 30, 2014, is impartial and effective, and properly considers evidence of wrongful state action.
During an alleged confrontation, military personnel opened fire on the group, who were inside an empty warehouse in the municipality of Tlatlaya, state of Mexico, killing all of them. One soldier was injured during the incident.
“It’s been two months since soldiers killed 22 civilians in Tlatlaya, and there are more questions than answers about what really took place that day,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “A thorough, objective, and independent investigation that examines whether the soldiers acted lawfully, and assesses evidence of state misconduct is needed and required by law.”
A news release about the incident and other official sources said that soldiers were responding to gunfire by the civilians, yet credible reports regarding the forensic evidence at the scene of the shooting suggest that the soldiers used excessive force. The federal Attorney General’s Office is conducting a criminal investigation into the incident, an official source told Human Rights Watch on August 18. But government officials have yet to disclose the names of those killed or the status of the investigation.
In a news release on June 30, the Defense Ministry said that the civilians opened fire when they saw the soldiers patrolling the area, and that the soldiers “repelled the aggression.” Soldiers found 38 firearms, one grenade, and several cartridges in the warehouse and liberated three women who said they had been kidnapped, the news release said.
On July 1, the governor of the state of Mexico, Eruviel Ávila Villegas, said that the soldiers had acted “in legitimate defense” and “taken down delinquents.”
However, an Associated Press journalist who visited the area three days after the incident reported in an article on July 8 that there was “little evidence of sustained fighting,” and that he found only a small number of bullet holes in the warehouse walls where soldiers would have fired at civilians in a shootout.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) has also visited the scene and documented the case. The Associated Press reported that two members from the OHCHR had indicated they did not find signs of stray bullets of the type that would be left by soldiers shooting automatic weapons from a distance.
The attorney general of the state of Mexico, Alejandro Jaime Gómez Sánchez, told the local media on July 17 that he had no “elements to presume” that the soldiers had executed the 22 civilians.
“The fact that the soldiers killed all 22 suspects and sustained only one injury raises questions about whether the use of force was proportional,” Vivanco said.
According to the Defense Ministry, 2,959 civilians were killed between 2007 and 2012 during incidents of “aggression against military personnel.” Only 158 members of the military were killed in those same incidents. A local newspaper reported, based on information provided by official sources, that 628 civilians have been killed in confrontations with the military since President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in December 2012.
The Manual on the Use of Force for the Armed Forces, adopted by the secretaries of Defense and the Navy in May, states that, “The use of force will be employed strictly respecting human rights, independently of the type of aggression, and respecting the principles of opportunity, proportionality, rationality, and legality.” It will only be considered “legitimate defense” if it aims at repelling “a real, actual, or imminent aggression.”
“Putting these principles down on paper is not enough,” Vivanco said. “Now the Peña Nieto administration needs to show that it’s serious about ensuring that military personnel abide by them, and thoroughly investigating cases where there is the possibility they have not.”