The Mexican government remained tight-lipped yesterday about a deadly military battle that took place earlier this week in a remote central region of the country, leaving 22 alleged gang members dead. One Mexican soldier was injured.
On Monday afternoon, the army released a one-page statement saying that soldiers on a pre-dawn patrol in the southwestern corner of the State of Mexico — the country’s most populous, as it rings much of Mexico City’s metropolitan area — observed armed men guarding a warehouse. The armed men opened fire on seeing the military patrol, according to the statement, prompting soldiers to respond with gunfire that killed 21 men and one woman.
The army said it later freed three women from the site who were identified as kidnapping victims. One soldier suffered minor injuries but was in “stable condition” by Monday afternoon. More than 35 weapons were recovered, including 16 AK-47s and six AR-15 rifles, the army said.
The statement offered no further information, such as the identities of the deceased or the number of soldiers involved in the battle. It also didn’t say whether drugs or other illegal goods were found inside the warehouse.
The incident occurred near a tiny community in the municipality of Tlatlaya, close to Mexico State’s borders with the violence-plagued states of Guerrero and Michoacan.
Mexican news outlets said that the shootout involved members of an organized-crime group called the Guerreros Unidos, or United Warriors. The territory is described in press reports as belonging to warring former members of the now-defunct Beltran-Leyva cartel. Remnants of La Familia Michoacana, another cartel that recently splintered, are also believed to operate in the area.
VICE News reached out to Mexico’s Interior Ministry in order to verify the claims appearing in the press, but a spokesman said late Tuesday that the army’s official statement offered the only information to be released.
“Our policy is we don’t refer to criminal groups by name,” said ministry spokesman Gonzalo Ponce. “They are just criminal groups.”
Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope told VICE News that Guerreros Unidos is an offshoot of the old Beltran-Leyva gang, which descended into bloody infighting after Mexican marines killed Arturo Beltran Leyva, one of its founding leaders, in a shootout in 2009.
Although the firefight occurred in Mexico State, Hope said that it might be directly related to the conflicts in Guerrero or Michoacan, where illegal mining and the extortion of mining operations are common.
“In the mountainous zone of Guerrero there are marijuana and poppy fields, and there is extortion and kidnapping as well,” Hope said. “There could be links to gangs of illegal loggers, or it could be related to the extortion of mines in Michoacan state.”
The shootout was near a military base that was just inaugurated on June 18 in an event attended by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. Critics have argued that deploying Mexico’s military to fight powerful cartels on the streets increases the chance of civilians being caught in the crossfire of violent shootouts.
Hope said that the military’s presence “simply raises the possibility that there will be confrontations with armed groups.”
The security firm InSightCrime published an analysis on Tuesday that raised concerns about the army's conduct during the incident.
“The assault this week raises worrying questions over how these operations are being carried out by the military, and how the government is providing oversight of their actions,” InSightCrime said. “The property was guarded by 22 heavily armed people, and the military killed all of the alleged criminals while only suffering one minor casualty. Human rights groups have already raised the specter that the military is engaging in extrajudicial killings and later manipulating the crime scenes.”
Ponce, the government spokesman, called such suggestions “pure speculation.”
Follow Rafael Castillo on Twitter: @TnteMalasombra