The Tlatlaya massacre, which left 22 alleged drug traffickers dead at the hands of Mexican soldiers, looks set to live on in the country’s memory like a nightmare. The government’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) reports that in the early hours of June 30, eight soldiers killed 15 civilians, including two teenagers, in cold blood after they surrendered following skirmishes that left seven others dead. Once killed, the soldiers tampered with the crime scene – a storeroom in southern Mexico State – in order to make it look as though they had all died in the crossfire, the commission says. Only three women, whom the military thought were captives, survived. CNDH President Raúl Plasencia considers the massacre one of the worst violations of human rights committed by Mexican armed forces.
This verdict comes as the country continues to count the days since 43 teaching students disappeared in Iguala, worsening a crisis of confidence in public institutions. A lieutenant and seven soldiers have already been arrested in the Tlatlaya case. The Prosecutor General’s Office has accused three of them of homicide. Such a purge of personnel is unprecedented in Mexico’s armed forces, which is used to waging its war on drugs without being accountable, and comes as the result of strong international pressure, including from the United States Department of State, and President Enrique Peña Nieto’s decision to open a proper investigation into a case that threatened to become a first-rate political problem.
The military’s version crumbled as the result of a statement one survivor gave to Esquire magazine
Military intervention against drug trafficking is a mine field. Between 30,000 and 40,000 soldiers have been mobilized to combat the issue, and frequent reports of abuse and extrajudicial executions have drawn the attention of the United Nations, but no single case had ever reached these proportions.
The military’s version of the story has presented insurmountable contradictions since it was published. The official story maintained that the military convoy inspecting the area ran into the bodega by chance and that the place was guarded by “armed personnel” who began to shoot when they saw the soldiers. The result was 22 dead “alleged aggressors” and only one slightly injured soldier. The sparseness of the account, the military’s refusal to make the facts about the dead – members of the bloodthirsty La Familia cartel – available, and its inability to explain what the troops were doing at the bodega did nothing but raise doubts about a version of events that failed even to explain why none of the alleged drug dealers had come out injured or why there were no military casualties. Despite the gaps, the army had strong backing from other branches of government, including the Mexico State Attorney’s Office, which was in charge of the investigation. The Office defended the military’s story and publicly stated that none of the victims had been shot at close range.
This version, which had seemed unshakable, finally crumbled as the result of a statement one of the survivors gave to Esquire magazine, a preview of which was published in EL PAÍS. The woman, who was also the mother of one of the teenagers who died in the massacre, said that after some initial brief skirmishes, they had given up their weapons and the soldiers began to question the detainees. “They asked them to surrender and the men asked them to spare their lives,” she said. “‘So you think you are brave, you sons of bitches. You think you are brave.’ That’s what the soldiers said as [the detainees] walked out. They all walked out and surrendered […] Then they asked them their names, and they hurt them, they didn’t kill them. I told them not to do it, not to do it, and they said: ‘These dogs don’t deserve to live’ [...] Then they lined them up and killed them. You could hear the moans and wails.” With the first set of executions was over, the woman also had to watch as they finished off her daughter. She had to say she had been kidnapped in order to save her life.
Such a purge of personnel is unprecedented in Mexico’s armed forces, which is used to being unaccountable
Her statement opened the floodgates. International human rights organizations demanded an immediate review of the case. Washington reminded Mexican authorities that “a credible review of the circumstances” was imperative. President Peña Nieto ordered officials to transfer the case to Mexico’s Prosecutor General’s Office, a department that falls under his command. Only then did the Secretary of National Defense break the shield. Soon after, they made the first set of arrests.
Now, CNDH has released its report. It shows the cruelty of the military operation, which was hidden and covered up for months. Tlatlaya and Iguala: another chip off the foundations of these eroding institutions.
Translation: Dyane Jean François