ARCELIA, Mexico – When the witness refused to sign a false statement that 22 suspected drug gang members had died in a shootout with the Mexican army, state investigators began to kick her in the ribs, she said. They put a bag over her head, plunged her face into a toilet bowl and beat her so hard that, six months later, she still has trouble with her hearing and eyesight.
"As they were hitting me ... they told me they could make even the mute talk," said the woman, one of three witnesses known to have survived a June 30 mass killing by the Mexican army.
In her first interview since being falsely imprisoned for five months on weapons possession charges, the woman said a cover-up of the crime went far beyond the seven soldiers facing trial in the case to include more soldiers, and state and federal prosecutors who pushed to make the deaths look like the result of a gunbattle rather than what they were -- extra-judicial killings after surrender.
Criminal case files obtained by The Associated Press last week supported her assertion that state prosecutors knew from the start that soldiers had altered the crime scene, despite official and public declarations to the contrary. And the documents revealed that the battalion commander responsible for the troops arrived at the scene before state investigators.
The witness, a 20-year-old prostitute who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that two days after the beating in the state of Mexico she was taken to the capital, where she was pressed into signing the false statement by federal organized crime investigators working for the attorney general's office.
"I told them I wasn't going to sign anything ... and they began yelling at me," the witness said. Without a lawyer present, she finally relented. She and another witness were jailed until earlier this month.
The army slaying is one of two cases that have thrown Mexico into a human rights crisis in recent months. After the mass killing in Mexico state, 43 college students went missing at the hands of local police in neighboring Guerrero state. The crimes occurred within three months of each other under the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto, who had promised more transparency and greater emphasis on human rights, and they have sparked international protests.
The army killings first came to light with a June 30 press release stating that soldiers on patrol near San Pedro Limon had come under fire and engaged in a fierce shootout that killed 22 gangsters, but left only one soldier wounded — an imbalance that raised questions. The AP visited the scene several days later and found little evidence of a firefight, discovering instead a series of blood-spattered bullet markings at chest height on the wall of the warehouse where the confrontation had occurred, an indication that at least some of the dead were shot at close range.
In September, the AP interviewed a survivor whose 15-year-old daughter was among the dead, and who was the first to state publicly that most of the victims had been killed after they surrendered. Like the witness released from prison, she declined to allow her name to be used. Both women fear retribution by officials and drug traffickers, given all they have disclosed.
According to criminal case files obtained by the AP, Mexico state officials learned early on that, in at least 10 cases, weapons placed next to the bodies did not match the ammunition carried by the dead men, and blood stains on clothing indicated the bodies had been moved. "Defensive wounds" suggested that at least nine of the dead had tried to ward off bullets, something they would not be able to do if they were firing weapons.
Nonetheless, state investigators filed a report validating the army's version of events, stating that "observations at the crime scene showed that it has been preserved in its original state."
The documents show that the army did not interview the soldiers about a cover-up and the federal attorney general did little to investigate the June 30 slaying before the AP and Esquire magazine published interviews with the mother. In late September, federal prosecutors announced that eight of the 22 dead were killed after surrendering, although weeks later, the National Commission on Human Rights said it had found that 12 to 15 suspects were shot after surrendering.
In November three soldiers were charged with aggravated homicide in the eight deaths, and four others — including a lieutenant — were charged with "actions improper to the public service" for failing to report the killings.
The army and attorney general say that's as far as the case goes.
But the latest witness said a large number of army personnel arrived soon after the shooting, and before she saw changes to the crime scene.
Court documents revealed that Col. Raul Castro Aparicio, the commander of the 102 battalion, whose members were responsible for the killings, arrived on the scene before state investigators. The documents do not make clear what role Castro may have played there, and it is not known if he has been investigated in connection with the cover-up. The Defense Ministry did not respond to AP requests for comment or to interview Castro.
"Someone in the army decided to say 'this is the version we're going to go with,'" said Raul Plascencia, who headed the National Human Rights Commission when the agency concluded that the army had engaged in extrajudicial killings.
He told the AP that the cover-up continued when the Mexico state prosecutor's office validated the soldiers' version and went all the way to federal attorney general's office.
Federal authorities have sealed evidence in the case for 12 years, and state authorities for 15.
Attorney Gen. Jesus Murillo Karam did not respond to repeated AP requests for comment. The Mexico state prosecutor's office, responding to questions from the AP, said for the first time last week that there is an investigation by the state Inspector General for Public Security Institutions into allegations that prosecutors tried to cover up the crime and tortured two surviving witnesses to change their testimony to match the army's version. But the state prosecutors' office said no agents have been detained or suspended from their jobs
The released witness, the mother of a 2-year-old daughter who acknowledged that she worked as a prostitute, offered new details in the ordeal. She said she was waiting for a taxi outside a local water park on June 20 when a truck full of armed men drove up and forced her into the vehicle. She said she spent the next nine days bound and often blindfolded, moved among abandoned houses in the hills, and was repeatedly raped by the men.
"They drugged me, made drink," she said. "I didn't know any of them."
That's how she ended up in the warehouse on June 29. In the early morning of June 30, she remembers being awakened by an exchange of gunfire and hearing someone shout, "Mexican army! Surrender!" The soldiers initially told state prosecutors that the suspects had refused to give up, according to court documents. But the two witnesses interviewed by the AP said the gang surrendered in short order, and walked out of the warehouse with their hands behind their heads.
Five people, including the three women, were taken aside as kidnap victims. All three women testified that they saw a military man wearing a uniform different from the others arrive after the shootings. He took the two male kidnap victims aside, saying he wanted to photograph them. The witness said she heard gunfire and later saw the two men among the dead, whose bodies she saw first without weapons and later with weapons.
It is not known whether the man in a different uniform was an officer or a member of another branch of the armed services. No attempt has been made to find the man or have the women identify him, according to Plascencia, formerly of the Human Rights Commission.
More than two weeks after the shooting, Alejandro Gomez Sanchez, the state attorney general, said that there was "no evidence that would suggest possible executions."
Asked last week about the contradictions, Gomez Sanchez's office said he had been misinformed "by personnel who had charge of the investigation for only four days."
But the witness said that when she had tried to tell state authorities what really happened, they went to extremes to force her to confirm the army's version.
"One of them told me he was going to rape me," she said.
The agents threatened to charge her with weapons possession, which they eventually did, and said her 2-year-old would be an orphan.
A female state prosecutor's agent was present during her torture, she added. Only two women agents are listed in the case files.
When she was taken to the federal prosecutors' office in Mexico City, the witness said she was put into a room with several detectives, where she again was threatened with jail unless she signed the statement. She signed one page of the multi-page statement, she said, only to discover later that someone forged her signature on the rest of the pages.
After five months in jail, the witness says she faces mounting bills for medical treatment resulting from her beating and wants the government to recognize the abuse she suffered.
"I am asking for justice, because they never found any evidence against us," she said.
Associated Press writers E. Eduardo Castillo and Katherine Corcoran contributed to this report from Mexico City.