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Mexico announces homicide charges in army killings

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Mexico City, Oct 1 (AP) - Mexican prosecutors announced homicide charges Tuesday against three soldiers in the June killings of 22 suspected gang members in southern Mexico, challenging the army's version that the suspects died in a shootout.
Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said that after a brief initial firefight the three soldiers entered a ware-house where the suspects had taken refuge and opened fire with "no justification whatsoever."
But questions immediately arose about how three soldiers could methodically kill 21 suspects - one had died in the initial 10-minute firefight - with carefully clustered chest-level shots, without having the rest try to run away or resist. There were no signs of stray shots or sprayed gunfire within the large grain warehouse, eliminating the possibility the three soldiers could have mowed them down with automatic fire.
Murillo Karam offered no details on whether the suspects had already surrendered, as a witness has said, or whether they had thrown away their guns. But Murillo Karam's version of events seemed to depict men stand-ing by quietly, awaiting their turn, while their companions were executed.
"If they (the suspects) were poorly armed then you could detain them and kill them, but that only makes the army's argument worse, because one side was poorly armed and they slaughtered them with no compunction," said Raul Benitez, a security expert at Mexico's National Autonomous University.
However, by the army's own account, soldiers seized 13 pistols and 25 rifles, most apparently assault rifles, at the scene, far more weapons than the army squad would have had.
A witness to the confrontation who asked that her name not be used for fear of reprisals told The Associated Press that the 21 had already given up when soldiers led them back into the warehouse and killed them.
Murillo Karam said a squad of seven soldiers and a lieutenant were involved in the June 30 confrontation in the rural town of San Pedro Limon.
But he said five of the eight-man squad appeared to have stayed outside while the killings occurred, though he noted there were doubts about one enlisted man's account that could lead to a fourth set of charges. He said the decision to charge them had been made, and they would be formally arraigned on Wednesday. At any rate, all eight will also face military courts martial for disobedience and dereliction of duty.
The seven soldiers and an officer are already under detention under the military justice system. Those charges are separate from any civil probe.
The witness said Tuesday that "the majority (of soldiers present) participated" in the killings.
Murillo Karam also did not explain how a force of eight soldiers could so easily overwhelm 22 gunmen in a pre-dawn battle fought in the dark.
"Doesn't it seem strange that eight soldiers face off against 22 suspects and all the deaths are on the side of those with numeric superiority?" said Mexico City-based security analyst Alejandro Hope. "What was this, a squad of Rambos? Or had the suspects already been disarmed? Whichever way, this doesn't smell good."
Murillo Karam said that "from the start, we had detected some inconsistencies" in the soldiers' version of what happened. But he did not explain why it took federal investigators 2 ½ months to even perform ballistics and forensics examinations of the abandoned grain warehouse, which had been left open to vandals and curiosity seekers in the meantime.
Nor did he explain why his findings directly contradicted those of state prosecutors in Mexico State, where the killings occurred, who said in a July 15 statement that their investigations had found "an equal exchange of fire" and "no evidence at all of any possible execution."
"The civilian justice system has been totally discredited and looks very bad," said Benitez, noting the country's National Human Rights Commission had also suggested the deaths occurred during a shootout. "It looks as if they don't perform objective investigations, but rather do them for political purposes and to cover up crimes."
Rights groups have said the killings may prove one of the most serious massacres in Mexico in recent memory.
The Associated Press visited the scene days later and reported no evidence of a shootout at the scene. Instead, bullet holes and blood stains indicated some were shot near or against the walls of the warehouse.
On Monday, a U.N. special rapporteur for human rights called for the Mexican government to conduct a tho-rough investigation of the incident as a possible case of "summary executions."
The seven soldiers and the officer are already under detention under the military justice system. Those charges are separate from any civil probe.