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17 held in Mexico church camp attack, rapes

19 July 2012, 13:02

 Toluca - Police arrested 17 men on Wednesday on suspicion of attacking youths and raping five women and girls who were on a church camping trip outside Mexico City, a brutal assault that shocked much of the country.

The attorney general for the State of Mexico, Alfredo Castillo, said 11 of the gang members were identified by some of the victims. In interrogation videos played for reporters, three of the suspects confessed that they sexually abused the women and girls because fellow attackers told them to.

Two of the suspects were local police officers and another had served in the military, Castillo said, speaking two days after authorities announced the arrest of a man who was described as not directly involved in the assault on the camp-out but who allegedly provided information to the assailants.

President Felipe Calderon met with parents and lawyers of the victims on Wednesday to discuss the crime, which highlighted the increasing dangers of outdoors activities around the capital.

Sponsored by a church group known as the Chains of the Holy Trinity, 90 youths were camping on Friday at an eco-park on the eastern outskirts of Mexico City when a group of armed men stormed into the hilly area.

The attackers went on an hours-long rampage of beatings, robberies and rapes at the site close to the lower flanks of the Popocatepetl volcano.

No drug gang links

The episode and a similar mass robbery and rape attack in February at a spot nearby have reduced city residents' trust in the serenity of the wooded hills around the city and interrupted a decades-old tradition of outdoors activities in the pine and fir forests.

Prosecutors have said the latest attack was not related to organised crime or drug gangs. Common criminals, robbers and rapists have been targeting hikers and campers on the city's outskirts.

Mexico's equivalent of the Boy Scouts said on Tuesday that it is recommending scouts not go on hikes in small groups and avoid about 11 wooded areas on the outskirts of Mexico City. No scouts were involved in the attack.

The Scouts Association of Mexico said future hikes should ask for police protection if necessary. The group's statement said it co-ordinated a recent hike with local police departments.

Gerardo Catano, who leads tours and a mountain rescue group in the township of Tlamanalco on the slopes of the volcanoes that ring Mexico City, said the number of hikers and campers has fallen about 90% in the wake of the most recent attack.

Catano said he has been robbed three times while leading groups through the mountains. He said the attackers were armed with pistols and shotguns, but he agreed with prosecutors that the robbers probably don't belong to sophisticated crime gangs or drug cartels.

Victims humiliated

"The organised criminals, they go after other targets" with more money, Catano said. "They are probably people from the [mountain] communities themselves."

Organised or not, Catano said the problem has gotten worse, with bands of attackers growing bolder and picking on larger groups, calmly spending hours humiliating their victims.

He recalled that in one of the attacks in which a group he led was robbed, "they took their time to threaten us and even ate our food in front of us. They had all the time in the world to do what they wanted".

In another large-scale attack, an armed band robbed a group of about 120 hikers in February, and reportedly raped two.

"You can't go up alone anymore, and it's even more dangerous if you have a woman with you," Catano said.

He and other guides have called on local authorities to deploy horse-mounted police patrols, and suggested officials station officers at some of the better-known trailheads and forest clearings.

- AP

Tags mexico

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