Mexican soldiers had orders "take out criminals in the darkness" of night, human-rights groups said in a report released one year after the Tlatlaya massacre in central Mexico.
On June 30, 2014, in what Mexico's defense ministry initially described as a shootout, 22 people were killed in a work shed in a remote area of the State of Mexico, sparking immediate doubts about the use of force by soldiers against civilians.
Photos of the scene and subsequent press accounts suggested that instead soldiers executed the civilians and later altered the scene by placing weapons alongside the corpses.
On Thursday, a year and a day after the killings, the Miguel Agustin Pro Human Rights Center in Mexico City, or Prodh, released an independent study including previously unrevealed military documents that prove troops were ordered to kill suspected criminals "in the darkness, since the majority of crimes happen during those hours."
The command was issued on June 11, 2014 — 19 days before the executions in Tlatlaya.
Human-rights defenders stand with copies of a new report on the Tlatlaya killings. (Photo via Centro Prodh)
The Prodh center is now representing one of the few eyewitnesses and survivors of the massacre, Clara Gomez Gonzalez, initially known as "Julia" in the first press reconstructions that contradicted the Mexican military's version of the events.
Gomez, who revealed her identity publicly for the first time on Thursday, witnessed the extrajudicial killings of more than a dozen people and also watched her 15-year-old daughter Erika die at the hands of soldiers who were allegedly investigating a suspected holdout for a criminal group.
Gomez and human-rights defenders said they are pushing for Mexico's government to investigate the chain of command that would bear responsibility for the Tlatlaya killings to the "ultimate consequences."
"I don't feel safe, I don't want to go out, I'm afraid," Gomez told reporters. "I want justice to be made. I feel strong, and I want punishment for the culprits."
The authorities' initial account of the events described a confrontation between the military and a criminal group. The military said soldiers located a shed guarded by armed criminals in the town of San Pedro Limon, within the municipality of Tlatlaya, during the early hours of June 30, 2014.
Presumably, when the criminals became aware of the soldiers' presence, they opened fire, provoking the army's response. The shootout left a death toll of 21 men and one woman.
However, photos of the later aftermath surfaced and were published by VICE News, showing corpses lying near the shed's walls, with bloodstains and bullet holes behind them at chest level, suggesting close-range executions. The photos also showed weapons lying next to the bodies.
The new evidence resulted in the detention and jailing of seven soldiers who took part in the June 30 events. Three of them received charges for murdering eight people, abuse of authority, and crime scene alteration. Another servicemen is facing charges of concealing a crime, while the remaining three detainees were accused of abuse of authorities.
The watch relief command document further complicates the case, because it could result in the investigation of higher up officials inside Mexico's Secretariat of National Defense, as the army is formally known. The document suggests the operation that lead to the 22 deaths had been planned in advance.
"The actions to reduce violence will be planned and executed in darkness, on specific targets and avoiding collateral victims," reads the report on the command received by Ezequiel Rodriguez Martinez, an infantry lieutenant. Lt. Col. Sandro Diaz Rodriguez issued the document.
Both servicemen are detained.
Gabriela Gorbea contributed to this report. Follow @VICENews on Twitter for updates on the drug war in Mexico.