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The mother of a victim of a firefight with federal forces on May 22, 2015, lights a candle at the warehouse where her son was killed in a ranch in Tanhuato, state of Michoacan, Mexico, June 28, 2016. REUTERS/Frank Jack Daniel

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By Lizbeth Diaz and Frank Jack Daniel

(Reuters) - The small town of Ocotlan in western Mexico was hard hit by an ambush a government body now admits was an act of police abuse, having lost dozens of its young men who joined a powerful drug gang for money and adventure but instead found an early grave.

Mexico's National Human Rights Commission said on Thursday federal police arbitrarily executed at least 22 of 42 suspected gang members killed on a drug cartel ranch more than a year ago and then moved bodies to fake a gun battle.

It may have been an act of revenge. Together with the shocking abduction in 2014 of 43 trainee teachers, who have not been seen since corrupt police apparently handed them over to drug gang henchmen, it was one of the worst abuses blamed on police in a decade of grisly violence.

Although the attack took place in the municipality of Tanhuato, almost all of the dead came from Ocotlan, a small town nestled into agave-covered hills between Jalisco state and Michoacan on the frontlines of Mexico's drug war.

A makeshift altar to the dead, featuring the image of a saint with two AK-47s floating above his head, now stands in one of Ocotlan's hard-bitten neighbourhoods.

After the May 22, 2015 massacre the mourning families kept quiet. They did not approach rights groups to help them prove police had executed their sons and husbands. Many cited fear of reprisals, from the cartel or the security forces.

Thursday's ruling came as a surprise. It was a rare case in which the government-funded and only semi-autonomous human rights commission brought succour to victims of violence who were too cowed to ask anybody for help.

Now some feel emboldened.

"We want to unite to show the truth," said Olga Venegas, whose unarmed 19-year-old son was shot dead in his underwear, and fell face down in a field. "Lots of people are scared, but not me, I want to take this forward."

Ocotlan was pulled into the eye of the storm last year when the fast-growing Jalisco New Generation (JNG) cartel made the town a base for its gunmen. Local gang leaders began recruiting young men and found a willing pool of labour, locals said.

GUNS, GIRLS AND POWER

The recruits came from all walks of life and the cartel paid well, at up to 5,000 pesos a week ($274), but many were drawn to a lifestyle of guns, girls and power.

Victor Manuel Alvarez, 27, grew up by Ocotlan's railway track and he took a job with the railroad too. But the appeal of owning his own truck and the status drew him to the gang, his aunt told Reuters on a recent visit. He died on the ranch.

Carlos Octavio Montano was the son of a wealthy butcher, ready to go to university. He joined up and also died on the ranch. So did kids from the other side of the tracks, in the town's red light district, and really poor boys like Hector de Jesus Arana, whose body was badly mangled.

For a while, the town was calm under JNG control. Patrolling in pickups, "the boys" kept the peace, residents say, deterring common crime.

"They looked after us," said Claudia Urqueta, whose husband died in the police raid.

The JNG quickly began taking on security forces with a ferocity rarely seen, however. It gained notoriety in May 2015 by killing six soldiers when it shot down an army helicopter. In the weeks before that, cartel gunmen killed more than 20 federal police in two attacks, one of them in Ocotlan itself.

This was the backdrop to the ambush at the El Sol ranch, just across the border in Michoacan, a 30-minute car journey from Ocotlan.

Some family members say there was a party the night before. Photos show piles of bloodied clothes and sleeping bags on a veranda, supporting testimony that the men were caught sleeping at the ranch house on a sprawling 277-acre (112-hectare) alfalfa farm.

Whatever happened, there were only three survivors. Only one policeman died. The dead lay strewn across the fields, photos show. Many were unarmed or with guns in strange positions, prompting the human rights commission to say they were planted by police.

It was the latest in a string of incidents in which Mexican police or soldiers are accused of choosing to kill rather than capture criminals.

In the response to the commission's report, Renato Sales, Mexico's national security commissioner, told a news conference on Thursday that he did not accept the conclusion that police carried out executions. The use of force was proportionate to the threat, he said.

(Editing by Simon Gardner and Tom Brown)

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