The 72 bodies found at a ranch in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas could be those of a group of illegal immigrants headed for the U.S. border, the Mexican government said Wednesday.
The preliminary investigation determined that the dead were from El Salvador, Honduras, Ecuador and Brazil.
The marines who discovered the bodies were acting on a tip from a survivor of the massacre who told authorities the immigrants were kidnapped by an armed group while trying to cross the border into the United States, Attorney General’s Office spokesman Ricardo Najera told a press conference here.
Najera was joined by Foreign Relations Secretariat official Salvador Beltran del Rio, who said the embassies of the four countries whose nationals were killed had been notified so they could assist with the identification process.
The survivor of a massacre on a ranch 85 miles south of Brownsville trudged into a navy checkpoint — a bullet wound in his neck — with a tale almost too gruesome even for a country locked in the throes of a vicious and bloody drug war.
The eyewitness, who is from Ecuador, was hospitalized for treatment of a gunshot wound in the throat.
Investigators suspect that the gunmen who engaged the marines in the shootout were behind the killings at the ranch, a military spokesman said, without providing details on how the people were killed.
The marines took part in a chase on Monday, but the shootout and the discovery of the bodies occurred the next day, the official said.
A minor was arrested after the shootout, and marines seized 21 rifles, 101 ammunition clips, four bullet-proof vests, camouflage uniforms and four SUVS.
“Among the (SUVs) is one that stands out for its cloned characteristics, with an apocryphal registration of the National Defense Secretariat,” the Navy Secretariat said.
Tamaulipas and neighboring Nuevo Leon state have been dealing with a wave of violence unleashed by drug traffickers battling for control of smuggling routes into the United States.
The violence has intensified in the two border states since the appearance in February in Monterrey, the capital of Nuevo Leon, of giant banners heralding an alliance of the Gulf, Sinaloa and La Familia Michoacana drug cartels against Los Zetas, a band of Mexican special forces deserters turned hired guns.
Marines and soldiers have freed hundreds of migrants held in gangster safe houses in Reynosa, Matamoros and other cities in recent months. Several local, state and federal police officers have been arrested on suspicion of aiding in migrant abductions.
“This discovery once again demonstrates the extreme danger and violence that Central Americans face on their treacherous journey north, as well as the Mexican government’s abject failure to protect them,” human rights organization Amnesty International said in a statement.
Gangland violence has exploded this year across northeastern Mexico — an area bordered by the Rio Grande and including the cities of Monterrey and Tampico — as the Zetas have gone to war with their former allies, the Gulf Cartel, and other bands.
At least 600 people have been killed in the fighting in recent months, according to media tallies. Untold numbers have simply disappeared — sometimes turning up in mass graves.
Known for its bass fishing and dove hunting, the San Fernando area long has been popular with outdoors enthusiasts from Texas and other states. But a group of Houston dove hunters reported being robbed in an area field last fall by heavily armed men.
The bodies of 15 presumed gang members also were dumped recently just outside San Fernando, on the main highway leading to the Texas border.
Newspapers in Matamoros and Ciudad Victoria, the cities nearest San Fernando, didn’t carry news of the massacre on their websites Wednesday.
Reporters in the region say they have been scared into silence by threats from the Zetas and other criminal gangs.
The facts of the incident
The 72 illegal immigrants killed in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, were on a bus bound for the United States when, between Saturday and Sunday, were intercepted by a convoy of Zetas. According to the testimony of the only survivor of what it is until now, the worst massacre in the wave of violence by organized crime in Mexico, several SUV's blocked the path of the bus carrying the victims and forced them out at gun point. They warned them that they were Los Zetas.
Among those that were executed, there was Luis Freddy, originally from Ecuador, who pretended to be dead. The final shot aimed at his head entered at one end of his neck and exited through the jaw. He waited there, spread out, until the perpetrators left and he managed to escape. "I only remember hearing the laments and the pleas of some of the people who were there. Then I heard shots, and when everything was over I stood up to get help," he said.
While asking for help, Luis managed to say that "the killing had just happened." He stated that the thugs had offered them work as sicarios and that they would earn as much as a thousand dollars every two weeks. They all rejected the offer and the rejection caused their ultimate death.
At the beginning the marines did not believe what he was saying because on other occasions they have been ambushed by heavily armed sicarios from false information provided by citizens.
It was about seven in the morning on Monday when the marines were said to be in contact with Luis, who muttered that there were more than 70 people dead on a ranch, but the marines took the information with a lot of reservation.
The ranking military member of the marines informed his superiors and they decided to conduct an aerial reconnaissance of the area and were attacked with gunfire while doing a fly over. This made them conclude that perhaps the massacre told by the survivor might be true after all.
The remote distance of the ranch and the unsecured area prevented from any type information on the massacre leaking out at the outset. Another 70 marines onboard armored military vehicles and equipped with heavy weapons confronted numerous sicarios in the vicinity of the ranch that killed one marine and three sicarios.
In the operation the military was able to apprehend a minor, native of Veracruz, who allegedly participated in the massacre.
The survivor (Luis) said that among the slain victims were people that had come from Brazil, Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. In the official report describing the victims there is mention that one of the 14 women were in an advanced state of pregnancy. Most of the victims were young.
The survivor (Luis) also reported that the "coyote" human smuggler threatened his family with death if he revealed his identity and the survivor is under protective custody for fear of his own life. His family in Ecuador are worried for Luis while he is in Mexico. Luis paid the coyote $11,000 to take him to the US where he planned to seek work and provide for his 17 year wife who is expecting a baby.
The minor who was arrested had been fully trained on how to avoid revealing information of criminal activities they performed. The first statements he made were to the staff of the Attorney General of the Republic, who took over the investigation since the evening of Tuesday.
Los Zetas, the former armed wing of the Gulf Cartel but who now operate as an independent organization, engage in drug trafficking, as well as kidnappings, extortion and fuel theft, among other crimes.
In recent years, they have been behind many kidnappings of immigrants, which has made Mexico a danger zone for hundreds of thousands of people trying to reach the United States through its territory.
Sources: Houston Chronicle, Universal, The Associated Press