Blood on the wall of a building in the Tlatlaya community after 22 people were killed in a confrontation with Mexican soldiers on June 30, 2014
Mexico City (AFP) - Three Mexican soldiers accused of taking part in a massacre of 22 gang suspects in 2014 have been freed by a judge for lack of evidence, officials said, drawing dismay from human rights groups.
The soldiers -- the last of seven initially charged -- were accused of killing eight of the suspected gang members in cold blood in a warehouse in the central municipality of Tlatlaya on June 30, 2014.
The army initially said the 22 suspects were killed in a shootout.
But a woman who survived said many of those killed, including her 15-year-old daughter, were executed by the soldiers after surrendering.
Four of the arrested soldiers had already been released last October for lack of evidence.
Ruling in the case against the remaining three soldiers, the judge found the state had again failed to prove its case, the prosecutor's office said Friday in a statement.
The seven soldiers, including a commanding officer, were also acquitted by a military court, though it sentenced the officer to a year in prison for disobeying orders to undertake nighttime operations only with his full squad of 30 troops.
The National Human Rights Commission had determined that between 12 and 15 of the gang suspects were executed.
- Military strained in drug fight -
The case has put a spotlight on the controversial use of the armed forces to combat drug cartels in Mexico.
Troops have faced accusations of torture and abuse since then-president Felipe Calderon deployed thousands of soldiers to combat gangs in 2006. More than 100,000 people have died or gone missing since then, many of them victims of drug cartel turf wars.
The group Human Rights Watch voiced dismay, slamming the court's decision as potentially a "coverup."
"Given the well documented evidence that soldiers executed civilians in Tlatlaya, the fact that no one has been held responsible for those crimes suggests the same kind of gross incompetence, or even coverup, that has been shown in the case of the (43 students who went missing from) Ayotzinapa on the part of judicial authorities," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, HRW director for Latin America, told AFP.
The acquittal "is utterly grave because it bolsters impunity in one of the most glaring cases of human rights violations by the military in Mexico's recent history," added Santiago Aguirre with the rights organization Prodh.
In the Ayotzinapa case, the 43 young men had come from Tixtla, a town in the impoverished southern state of Guerrero, where they studied at a rural teachers' college
Prosecutors say the students were whisked away by corrupt police in the city of Iguala on September 26, 2014, after they hijacked buses to be used for a future protest.
But the experts of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, who were invited by the government to aid the probe at the parents' request, rejected the central conclusion in the case.
The experts said there was no scientific proof that the students' bodies were burned in a funeral pyre at a garbage dump after they were killed by a drug gang.
That mass disappearance wrecked President Enrique Pena Nieto's effort to shift attention away from Mexico's drug violence and toward his ambitious economic reform agenda.
But while his popularity has dropped to 30 percent, his Institutional Revolutionary Party and its allies still managed to keep their majority in the lower house of Congress in elections last year.