By Ana Isabel Martinez
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico's national security spokesman denied on Monday that 42 suspected gang members killed in a gunfight last week, in which government forces suffered just one fatality, were executed after the one-sided death toll raised doubts.
The 42 deaths on Friday came less than a year after 22 suspected gang members were killed without loss by security forces in an incident the government originally labeled a shootout.
Later investigations showed that more than half of the 22 killed last June were the victims of extra-judicial executions.
Asked whether the 42 deaths on a ranch near the border of Michoacan and Jalisco states had been an execution, National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido said the suspected gangsters had been killed in battle with government forces.
"All of them fell in the clash," he said. "The violence of this criminal group provoked this outcome."
Rubido said the gang members killed in the shootout were believed to belong to the Jalisco New Generation (JNG) cartel, a powerful gang that since March has killed at least 20 police, six military personnel and downed one army helicopter.
Separately, Rubido told reporters that 2,626 bullet casings were recovered from the scene of the three-hour shootout, and that security forces also seized 1,282 usable rounds.
Three suspected gangsters were also arrested during the operation in which the government forces were supported by two Black Hawk military helicopters, though they were not present simultaneously, Rubido said. One federal policeman was killed.
The JNG has undermined pledges by President Enrique Pena Nieto that he would end years of gangland violence that has claimed more than 100,000 lives since 2007.
The rise of the JNG over the past few months has shaken confidence in the federal government's ability to contain the violence ahead of mid-term elections on June 7.
Pena Nieto's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party hopes to defend the slim majority it and its allies have in the lower house of Congress, with polls suggesting it could.
(Additional reporting and writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Dave Graham and Diane Craft)