MEXICO CITYMEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican government officials apologized on Monday to families of five youths killed after police kidnapped them and turned them over to a brutal drug gang, a rare instance of officials admitting the state's culpability in such crimes.
Relatives said the apology is the first official recognition the four boys and a girl were innocent victims and not criminals as officials initially asserted when they went missing in 2016 in the Gulf state of Veracruz, one of Mexico's most violent.
"More than anything, we want to reclaim the good name of our kids ... and demand justice for them and for thousands of others who experience the same thing," Columba Arroniz, a mother of one of the dead, said with tears streaming down her face.
Bloody turf battles among increasingly splintered criminal cartels have left more than 40,000 people missing in the past two decades, as well as around 26,000 unidentified corpses in over 1,100 mass graves, according to official data.
Cartels fight to control trafficking routes, human smuggling, extortion and kidnapping, among other activities.
Alejandro Encinas, the deputy interior minister for human rights, acknowledged the state's "profound responsibility" and vowed to revive investigations into the case in which eight police are among the 21 suspects so far arrested.
"We know that organized crime works with government officials at all levels," Encinas said at the event attended by family members at Mexico City's Museum of Memory and Tolerance.
No senior Veracruz security officials have been investigated in the case, a point criticized by the families.
"I apologize for the collusion between police and organized crime that wasn't stopped in time," said Cuitlahuac Garcia, Veracruz's governor, who took office in December.
The youths were on their way home when they were stopped by local police, apparently in the mistaken belief they had ties to a gang, then turned over to members of the powerful Jalisco New Generation Cartel. They were then murdered and their bodies incinerated, according to preliminary findings.
Grieving mother Arroniz drew some consolation from the fact that investigators found some remains of her son Bernardo.
"The other families don't have anywhere to cry," she said.
The case has echoes of the 2014 abduction and suspected massacre of 43 trainee teachers in southwest Mexico, in which the government admitted police were involved. To date, the remains of only one of the 43 have been definitively identified.
(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz; Editing by David Alire Garcia and James Dalgleish)