The case of the Tlatlaya massacre, in which the Mexican army killed 22 alleged drug traffickers, took a dramatic turn this week. A lieutenant and seven soldiers who took part in the operation in southern Tlatlaya were arrested. They are being held in a military prison and face charges of insubordination and dereliction of duty.
Although the court has yet to rule, the authoritative decision – the most forceful the Enrique Peña Nieto administration has taken regarding the military – comes just as the case threatened to create a huge political scandal. For months, the army held on to a flimsy exculpatory story. It did not reveal the names of the dead, nor explain what the troops were doing in that place in the early morning hours. Officials did not say how the alleged drug traffickers died, why none of them survived or why there were no military casualties. These gaps in the story caused a certain unease, which the military’s silence exacerbated until the tension reached its height a week ago when an eyewitness said the soldiers had captured the suspects, interrogated them, and then shot them dead in cold blood, one by one. Only three women survived. They said they had been kidnapped.
The testimony of that witness set off an already heated situation. International human rights groups that called on The Hague to investigate the excesses of President Felipe Calderón’s war on drugs say the incident was “a massacre.” The shock wave was felt in the United States, where the State Department gave an undisguised warning, reminding Mexico that it is "imperative that there is a credible review of the circumstances."
Under pressure, the Office of the National Secretary of Defense broke its silence last week and offered its “unconditional support” in helping to clear up the matter. Then it arrested and sent the soldiers to a military prison, where they await an appearance before a military tribunal. “These actions were taken by the Military Prosecutor General of Justice because of their responsibility for crimes contrary to military discipline, insubordination and dereliction of duty in the case of the officer and dereliction of duty on the part of the troops,” a statement said.
This kind of purge has few precedents in Mexico. Mexican soldiers, embroiled in a fierce battle against crime, usually moved through channels hidden from civilian authorities. They never had to answer accusations of fighting a dirty war. On Monday, President Peña Nieto said the Prosecutor General’s Office – a civilian institution subordinate to the president’s office – will investigate this new development in the case. In light of the federal authorities’ involvement, the Secretary of Defense is prepared to act.
This is a military decision with few precedents in Mexico
The soldiers’ version has not been released. Until the arrests, the army had insisted that those deaths were the result of skirmishes. In the first 273-word version, the military said a convoy was inspecting the area when they ran into a warehouse guarded by “an armed man” and that he began to shoot when he saw the soldiers. The result was the death of 22 “alleged aggressors” and one lightly injured soldier.
The witness statements contradict this version. The witness is the mother of a 15-year-old girl, Érika, who died in Tlatlaya. She said she arrived at the bodega where her daughter was around 10pm on Sunday, June 29. It was the refuge of the bloodthirsty cartel, La Familia. Around 3am, a military convoy showed up and began shooting. After a half-hour scuffle, the men inside the warehouse surrendered. An alleged drug dealer was killed during the battle. Érika and another man were hurt, the witness said.
After the men gave up their weapons, the military began interrogations, she continued. According to the witness, “they [the soldiers] asked them to surrender and the men asked them to take pity on their lives. ‘So you think you are brave, you sons of bitches. You think you are brave.’ That’s what the soldiers said as they walked out. They all got out and they surrendered… Then they asked them their names and they hurt them. They did not kill them. I was telling them ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it’ and then they said, ‘these dogs don’t deserve to live’... Then they lined them up and they killed them. You could hear the moans and wails.”
Afterwards, the two injured people – the girl and the supposed criminal – were killed. “They killed her right there and they also killed the man who was next to her.” This witness and two other women came out alive. They say they had been kidnapped.
The witness said the Prosecutor General’s Office held her in custody for a week. She said she was coerced into tying the dead men to criminal organizations.
The Tlatlaya case sheds light on the thorny role the armed forces play in the war on drugs. Between 30,000 to 40,000 soldiers have been deployed for the mission. And their activities have dangerous consequences. According to the National Commission of Human Rights (CNDH), “the armed forces do not only limit themselves to providing support for and taking orders from civilian authorities, they carry out missions that correspond only to civilian authorities.” CNDH is a Mexican government agency.
Christof Heyns, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions at the United Nations, has also warned of the excesses of “military repression” and the lack of “reporting on abuses committed” in Mexico.
Translation: Dyane Jean François