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One-sided death toll in Mexico gunfight raises doubts

AFP logoAFP 2015-05-23 Yemeli Ortega

One police officer dead, 42 criminal suspects killed: Mexico's government says good training and equipment explains the one-sided death toll after one of the bloodiest battles in the nearly decade-long drug war.

But experts are raising questions about what really happened at the El Sol ranch in western Mexico on Friday, nearly a year after soldiers were accused of executing gang suspects following a similarly lopsided shootout.

Friday's gunfight with suspected henchmen of the Jalisco New Generation drug cartel occurred in a region considered a bastion of the gang, which has killed 28 police officers and soldiers since March.

Authorities say a three-hour firefight erupted after federal forces launched an operation against suspects occupying the vast property in Tanhuato, Michoacan state, near the border with Jalisco.

"It was a very uneven fight. A battle where 42 die on one side and only one on the other is not a battle," Raul Benitez Manaut, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told AFP, saying the gang appeared to have offered no resistance.

The ranch, surrounded by corn and sugarcane fields, was sealed off on Saturday, with hundreds of police and troops guarding the area while investigators combed the property.

Local media published pictures of bodies lying in fields next to assault rifles. Some were shirtless or without shoes.

"Several escaped that way toward the hills," a state investigator told AFP, adding that the ranch was used as a hideout by the gang and that the owner's whereabouts are a mystery.

Officials detained three suspects and seized 39 guns of various calibers, a rocket launcher and a number of cartridges.

"A lot of details are missing. We don't know how many people participated in the police and military operation. We don't know if the helicopter was armed," Alejandro Hope, a former intelligence agency official, told AFP.

"There are still a lot of doubts. The number of weapons seized doesn't match the number of dead and detained."

- Rights probe -

But National Security commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido said the authorities avoided more casualties "thanks to the training and equipment of federal forces that participated in the actions."

Members of the state police search for evidence on May 23, 2015 inside the ranch along the Jalisco-Michoacan highway in Tanhuato, Michoacan State © Provided by AFP Members of the state police search for evidence on May 23, 2015 inside the ranch along the Jalisco-Michoacan highway in Tanhuato, Michoacan State

The Jalisco cartel has turned into a fierce challenge for President Enrique Pena Nieto's administration, which is battling to contain violence in various parts of Mexico.

The powerful group launched a series of attacks against security forces since March, downing a military helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade on May 1.

Friday's clash began when federal forces spotted a carload of gunmen, who opened fire and fled into the ranch, Rubido said.

The fight inside the 112-hectare (276-acre) ranch was complicated as suspects fled into agricultural fields, he said.

A helicopter backed the security forces, but Rubido did not say if the aircraft used weapons or how many troops and police were involved in the fight.

Officials from the Michoacan state and national human rights commissions were at the ranch to investigate what happened.

- Cartel fightback? -

Federal police officers leave the ranch where gunmen took cover during an intense gun battle with the police, along the Jalisco-Michoacan highway in Vista Hermosa, Michoacan State on May 22, 2015 © Provided by AFP Federal police officers leave the ranch where gunmen took cover during an intense gun battle with the police, along the Jalisco-Michoacan highway in Vista Hermosa, Michoacan State on May 22, 2015

Hope said the burden of proof was on the authorities.

"They have to demonstrate that this was not another Tlatlaya," he said, referring to the municipality in central Mexico where soldiers killed 22 gang suspects in June 2014 in what officials initially described as a shootout.

Only one soldier was wounded. Prosecutors later charged three soldiers with murdering eight of the suspects after they surrendered.

But other experts said the explanation behind the uneven death toll in Tanhuato was plausible.

The federal forces are "highly trained and, as a consequence, you can produce this type of result," said Samuel Gonzalez, a former anti-drug prosecutor. "The element of surprise was one of the factors."

Analysts say authorities must watch carefully how the cartel reacts.

"There appears to be an order to destroy the cartel before it can consolidate," the security expert Benitez Manaut said.

"A very tough reaction from the cartel cannot be ruled out."

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