MEXICO CITY — Nineteen members of an elite Mexico City police force were arraigned Friday in connection with the executions of three youths after a barrio shootout last month, as grieving relatives of the battle's victims shouted curses at them.
"Assassins! Damned assassins!" screamed Juana Peralta, 36, whose 17-year-old son was killed in the Sept. 8 gunfight between youths and police in a neighborhood known as an organized-crime den.
The officers were brought one by one into a prison room to hear a court clerk read the charges against them: murder in the case of one officer and abuse of authority for the rest.
The arrests late Thursday of 19 members of the Fox and Jaguar SWAT squad are being viewed in some quarters as step toward reining in rogue police and, in others, as a travesty of justice. They are the latest chapter in a saga that highlights Mexico's struggle to clean up crime with a police force that itself uses criminal methods.
Details are sketchy and conflicting, but neighbors say police seized six youths after the daytime gunfight and took them away on police buses. Three of the six were found dead a day later at the bottom of a mine in the south of this capital, with gunshot wounds to the head.
Three cadavers found Monday on a mountainside south of the city are believed to be those of the other three youths who disappeared. The victims' mothers identified clothing found at the site as that of their sons.
Forensic evidence has linked the officers to the first three; test results on the other three are pending.
From the time the boys disappeared, police executions were suspected as retaliation for the gun battle, in which one young man and one police officer died.
Many residents view the episode--with brazen tactics reminiscent of "death squad" activity sometimes seen in other parts of the country but not in the capital--as a new level of police scandal.
"What's different is that the attitude in society is that you can't supress violence with violence anymore," said Carlos Monsivais, a prominent writer and social critic.
Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, Mexico City's mayor-elect, has promised a thorough overhaul of the police, vowing to oust military elements brought in by President Ernesto Zedillo last year to root out corruption.
Enrique Salgado, Mexico City's police chief, is an army general who has been under immense pressure to stem the soaring crime rate--more than 500 incidents occur each day, according to press reports. But his checkpoints, searches of public transportation and even a series of high-profile raids on crime-ridden neighborhoods have prompted more criticism than gratitude from citizens.
Many Mexicans are convinced that their nation's authorities are as bad as criminals, said Armando Salinas Torre, president of the Public Security Commission of the local city assembly.
"We cannot accept that bad police assassinate bad citizens. The right to life is above everything," Salinas said.
Meanwhile, the sentiment that justice was served not by the arrests but by the alleged executions spurred a number of citizens to comment on the street and on radio and television call-in programs that the youths had it coming.
"If it's true these kids were criminals, unfortunately they are pushing the authorities into using these methods--that is, to kill them," said Alejandro Patino, 26, one of many callers to a radio program after the killings.
Said another caller, who identified himself only as Ortiz: "Stop giving the three thieves so much space in the news. Who knows all the people they killed during their time as muggers?"
Police have said some of the young men involved in the gun battle had criminal records, but they have not given any details.
"These desperate acts show the ineffectiveness of law enforcement in combating crime. We don't want to become like the Nazi society in Germany," said Antonio Padierna Luna, a local assemblyman.
In the wake of the arrests, Police Chief Salgado defended his officers' performance.
"We are doing all we can to do the job we've been given," he said.
Press critics have faulted police for routinely releasing most of the suspects rounded up in dragnets; rights activists claim that the police typically act without warrants.
The Human Rights Commission recently demanded that police respect the law. At a news conference Friday, De la Barreda said: "Police forces in Mexico are terribly backward. We don't have professional police."
Helena Sundman and Rob Randolph of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.