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Mexican judge frees 4 soldiers charged in killing of 22 gang members

FILE - In this Thursday, July 3, 2014, file photo, state police stand inside a warehouse where a black cross covers a wall near blood stains on the ground, after a shootout between Mexican soldiers and alleged criminals on the outskirts of the village of San Pedro Limon, in Mexico state, Mexico. It was confirmed on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015, that a Mexican judge ruled that there is insufficient evidence to try four of the seven soldiers charged in the case of 22 suspects killed in 2014, some of whom were apparently shot after they surrendered.  (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File)

FILE - In this Thursday, July 3, 2014, file photo, state police stand inside a warehouse where a black cross covers a wall near blood stains on the ground, after a shootout between Mexican soldiers and alleged criminals on the outskirts of the village of San Pedro Limon, in Mexico state, Mexico. It was confirmed on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015, that a Mexican judge ruled that there is insufficient evidence to try four of the seven soldiers charged in the case of 22 suspects killed in 2014, some of whom were apparently shot after they surrendered. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File)  ((AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File))

A Mexican judge ruled there is insufficient evidence to try four of the seven soldiers charged in the 2014 killing of 22 gang suspects, some of whom were apparently shot after they surrendered. Only one soldier was wounded in what the army initially described as a shootout.

The ruling effectively would free a lieutenant and three soldiers who faced lesser charges of "actions improper to the public service" for allegedly not reporting the killings or trying to cover them up.

The judge, ruling on an appeal by the seven, agreed there was enough evidence to continuing holding trials for the three soldiers who allegedly directly carried out the killings.

The ruling was confirmed Monday by lawyer Juan Velasquez, who advised the soldiers' defense team, and by a federal official who was not authorized to be quoted by name.

The soldiers have been held at a military prison, and also face military charges connected to violating rules of engagement, so they would not be freed immediately.

However, Velasquez said they may be able to go free on bail on the remaining charges. Velasquez said that federal prosecutors could appeal the judge's decision, but the Attorney General's Office would not immediately confirm the ruling or say whether it would appeal.

The government human rights commission said in a report last year that 15 of the 22 people were probably killed after they surrendered, contradicting the army, which said all died in a fierce gun battle after soldiers came under fire in the town of San Pedro Limón. Three of the victims were teenagers.

The human rights commission report also said that five soldiers, not three, had apparently entered the warehouse after the firefight, when the executions occurred.

Several of the victims had defensive wounds, suggesting they were shot while unarmed, and witnesses later told the Associated Press that some had been shot after they were subdued.

The witnesses said they had been threatened and tortured to try to get them change their versions, and in July, authorities filed charges against seven state police officers accused of torturing the three witnesses.

Guns found next to several of the victims did not match the caliber of bullets they were carrying, suggesting the crime scene had been altered.

Velasquez, the lawyer, said the evidence against the seven soldiers "comes only from the testimony of three witnesses, who contradict each other and themselves."

"If the soldiers had entered in a bloody way to execute 22 people, why would they leave three witnesses? That would be suicidal," Velasquez said.

He suggested the head-on, closely-clustered bullet marks that suggested some victims were shot standing against the walls of the warehouse, and the fact that some had defensive wounds, might have been due to the darkness and confusion of the pre-dawn confrontation.

"You can't forget that it was before dawn, there was no light, there was a confrontation," said Velasquez. "In the end, it could have been that, in the confrontation, there were two or three (suspects) who weren't armed ... two or three who didn't resist. But it was dark."

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