Human rights commissioner: 2 witnesses in Mexico army slaying jailed on false gun charges

Two survivors of a mass slaying by Mexican soldiers who have been jailed for weapons possession are innocent and should be released immediately, the outgoing president of the National Commission on Human Rights says.

Raul Plascencia told The Associated Press that the two women, who his commission says were tortured and sexually threatened into backing the army's version of the incident, were not affiliated with the 22 suspected gang members who were killed. Rather, they were prostitutes hired to accompany a leader of the group that met in an abandoned warehouse in southern Mexico on June 29. The leader was one of two men who escaped from the troops early on June 30.

The women's detention is a violation of their human rights, said Plascencia, who oversaw the commission's investigation of the bloodshed and is leaving the rights post Saturday. The army originally claimed all 22 suspects died in a fierce shootout. The two women, along with a third witness, have testified to authorities that most of the suspects had surrendered and were unarmed when they were shot by soldiers.

"The only crime they committed was having been contracted by certain people for services," Plascencia said of the two women, who have been in a federal prison in western Nayarit state. "From our point of view, they should be liberated immediately."

Neither the two women nor their lawyers could be reached for comment Friday.

The Attorney General's Office can withdraw charges and has done so in the past, most recently last year in the case of a retired general initially accused of having ties to organized crime. But a prosecutor's spokesman said Friday that he had no knowledge of anyone considering dropping the charges.

"What the commission says is their particular opinion," spokesman Eduardo Zeron said.

The jailing of innocents would be another blotch on a case that the commission's report called a cover-up of illegal conduct by the army and by state prosecutors. The Attorney General's Office has also been criticized over its slow response in investigating the killings.

The commission has said the prosecutor in Mexico state, where the killings occurred, issued a report supporting the army's initial version of the event after torturing and sexually threatening the two women now in jail. The women were beaten, kicked, suffocated with plastic bags and threatened with rape until they agreed to say what prosecutors wanted, the commission charged.

The army at first called the women rescued kidnapped victims, but federal prosecutors later charged them with weapons possession.

The army's version of the confrontation drew suspicion as soon as it issued a short press release late on June 30 saying all 22 suspects were killed and only one soldier wounded. The Associated Press visited the scene three days after the incident and found little evidence of a gunbattle, while bullet markings indicated some of the dead were shot at close range.

In September, the third woman who had been at the scene told the AP and Esquire magazine that only one person died in the shootout and the rest had surrendered. The Attorney General's Office didn't begin to investigate possible homicides until early October, three months after the incident and after the media reports.

The human rights commission's Oct. 21 report alleged numerous human-rights violations and said at least 12 and possibly 15 people had been shot dead after surrendering. It made a series of recommendations, including that the torture and treatment of the two jailed women be considered in their court proceedings.

Zeron said the Attorney General's Office is still considering the commission's recommendations.

The case has been followed by another security disaster for the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto, the disappearance of 43 teachers college students at the hands of a mayor and local police working with organized crime. The students are still missing after the police attack Sept. 26, and the government has laid out a scenario in which they were killed and their bodies incinerated, though so far there is no DNA confirmation.

The back-to-back examples of abuse of authority have caused anger across Mexico and brought protests at home and abroad.