New photos of the aftermath of a dubious June shootout in central Mexico show the 22 victims were likely executed by soldiers, analysts and news reports said, as mounting evidence pointing to a military massacre led Mexico's army to jail eight servicemen on Thursday in connection to the incident.
The seven soldiers and one officer jailed will face a military tribunal on charges of "crimes against military discipline," disobedience, and dereliction of duty, Mexico's defense ministry said in a statement. The names of the servicemen were not revealed.
Only one soldier was injured in the supposed firefight in the municipality of Tlatlaya, in the state of Mexico, after the army first came under fire from a shed in the town of San Pedro Limon. Yet all 22 alleged cartel members were killed, Mexico's military said in its initial statements.
VICE News repeatedly sought comment on the incident with non-military federal authorities, but spokesmen said the only statements available on the matter would be those of the defense ministry. This changed late last week, when Mexico's federal attorney general's office said it will be investigating the deaths after a damaging witness account emerged.
In an Esquire Mexico magazine report, a woman who said she witnessed the confrontation offered this version of the events: One man was killed in an initial firefight with the soldiers, who in turn interrogated the rest of the people inside the shed, before executing them one by one.
The witness's story in Esquire appears to corroborate a July report in which Associated Press journalists observed bloodstains and bullet holes on walls inside the shed at chest level, suggesting execution-style deaths instead of an unruly shootout between opposing forces. The AP also reported no evidence of large amounts of ammunition shells were seen inside the shed.
"[The soldiers] said they should give up and their lives would be forgiven," the unnamed witness, "Julia," told Esquire Mexico, describing the moments after the first man was killed. "Everyone came out. They surrendered, they definitely surrendered… Then they stood them up in line and they killed them."
Separately, a local news agency this week released photos that apparently show the deadly scene in the hours after it happened, with bodies still lying uncovered and some of the victims seen near the walls with bloodstains. The photos are graphic, but further support the claim that the 22 people who died there were likely executed.
The images were published nationally by the Mexican daily La Jornada on Friday and were later provided to VICE News by Mario Vázquez, director of the MVT news agency, which covers the region. Vázquez told VICE News the images were delivered to his office in a USB drive with no claimed authorship.
The photos show firearms near each of the victims. A forensics expert said the weapons and gear appear to be placed near the bodies after they were killed.
"A minimum analysis of these photos reveals that someone manipulated this crime scene," Mexican criminologist José Luis Mejía Contreras told the news agency.
Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch in Washington D.C., said in an interview Friday that the MVT photos reminded him of past massacres in which Mexico's security forces have planted firearms on victims after fatal confrontations. It happened, for example, in Ocosingo, Chiapas state, during fighting in the 1994 EZLN armed uprising.
"Obviously it would be possible to kill these persons and leave weapons by their side afterwards," Wilkinson told VICE News. "It's a practice we've seen before in general, the problem of false evidence. A case like this, if it turns out to be what it looks like — a massacre — then we would be facing a grave case, one of the most grievous in recent years, and it would require serious efforts on the part of the authorities in order to reach justice."
Follow Daniel Hernandez on Twitter @longdrivesouth. VICE News staff writer Rafael Castillo contributed to this report.