A year after Mexican soldiers killed 22 people in an empty warehouse in the town of Tlatlaya, the emergence of an official document outlining criteria for the use of force by the military has opened a serious and legitimate debate in the country about whether soldiers had a green light to kill.  

It is an irrefutable fact that Mexican security forces frequently use lethal force in security operations. According to official statistics, from 2007 to 2012, a total of 2,959 “presumed aggressors” died in alleged “aggressions against military personnel,” along with 158 members of the military. That is 18.7 civilian deaths for every military death.

In 2014, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions found that violations of the right to life in Mexico “continue to take place at an alarmingly high rate” and expressed concern for “systematic and endemic” impunity for such killings.

The Defense Department order released by a human rights group, Centro Prodh, was dated June 11, over two weeks before the Tlatlaya killings. It instructs Mexican troops in the area to “abatir delincuentes en horas de oscuridad,” or “take down delinquents when it is dark.” 

The release of this document, which the government acknowledges is authentic, has sparked speculation as to whether “abatir delincuentes” actually means “to kill” alleged criminals. This was the meaning the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions attributed to it; and Mexico state governor, Eruviel Ávila Villegas, the day after the Tlatlaya killings said the soldiers had “taken down delinquents.”

Nevertheless, with a 12-page document that also refers to ensuring that operations respect human rights and that the use of force is proportional, there is plenty of room for divergent views about whether this is evidence of a shoot-to-kill policy. Where there is no room for debate is about the need to ensure the government finally conducts thorough and impartial investigations to determine the possible criminal responsibility of top commanders in the Tlatlaya killings. That investigation should take into consideration the recently released document.

Likewise, the irrefutable fact is that while a year has passed since the killings, victims and their families are still waiting for justice. The Attorney General Office’s investigation, which began only three months later, still shows inconsistencies on very basic facts, such as the number of homicides they intend to prosecute. While the National Human Rights Commission said that at least 12 people were unlawfully executed, a handful of soldiers have been charged with the killing of only eight civilians. No one has been convicted.

The Human Rights Commission also found that state prosecutors beat and threatened three surviving witnesses to force them to say that the military was not responsible for the killings. Only this month, prosecutors charged seven investigative policemen for these beatings, media reported. None are detained. And despite a recommendation by the commission that places responsibility for covering up the crime on the Defense Ministry, the Attorney General’s Office has yet to identify all the military officials involved.   

Law enforcement and military officers have the right to defend themselves if attacked, but international law provides very specific criteria to determine if the use of lethal force is lawful. They are required to use non-lethal force as far as possible before resorting to firearms. And if using firearms is unavoidable, they should use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the risk they face. Under no circumstances can the primary goal of a law enforcement operation be to kill the suspects.

The anniversary of the Tlatlaya killings should serve as a wake-up call for President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration. The government’s obligation to curb impunity for rights violations and effectively combat organized crime doesn’t dilute with time; on the contrary, its failure to fulfill this obligation becomes clearer as time goes by.


José Miguel Vivanco is Americas director at Human Rights Watch.