By Juan David Leal
The steadily increasing number of bodies found in mass graves in Mexico, a total that has risen further in recent days with the discovery of 13 more corpses buried in the northwestern state of Durango, has rattled a country that seems to be littered with anonymous victims.
The words of the now-ex governor of the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, Eugenio Hernandez, who last August told a local radio station that there “must be mass graves in many parts of Tamaulipas and the country,” now seem prophetic.
Hernandez, who stepped down in January, made that prediction last year after marines found the bodies of 72 mostly Central American undocumented migrants in a mass grave in the Tamaulipas municipality of San Fernando. The migrants had been massacred at a ranch in August 2010, apparently for refusing to work for the Los Zetas drug gang.
In that same municipality, Mexican soldiers found more than 40 bodies in another mass grave on April 6 and the death toll has climbed steadily with several more discoveries of clandestinely buried corpses.
To date, 145 bodies have been unearthed in San Fernando and its surrounding area to the consternation of authorities and the general public. All but one of the slain individuals – a Guatemalan man – have been determined to be Mexican nationals.
The federal Attorney General’s Office also blames these latest deaths on Los Zetas, which is one of Mexico’s most ruthless cartels and has been fighting a turf war in Tamaulipas with the Gulf mob, its former ally.
The Zetas are a band of special forces deserters who became hired guns for the Gulf mob before going into the drug business on their own account.
The most stunning aspect of the discoveries is that initial investigations show most of the people were bus passengers who were intercepted by the criminals and killed indiscriminately, despite not having any connection to criminal gangs.
It is also surprising that several of the bodies were buried at least two months ago yet their family members had not reported them missing.
The local press has gathered statements from several area bus drivers, who say convoys of SUVs with dark-tinted windows and without license plates have been setting up checkpoints on roads to stop buses, forcing people out of the vehicles at random and later murdering them.
In that respect, the Mexican AG’s office on Friday offered a reward of up to 15 million pesos ($1.26 million) for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of those responsible for the slayings.
Apart from Tamaulipas, 11 other bodies were found in eight graves last weekend in the northwestern town of Ahome, in Sinaloa state, and 13 more outside Durango city on Thursday.
Another huge mass grave containing 55 bodies was discovered on May 29, 2010, at an abandoned silver mine in the southern town of Taxco.
Mexican authorities often find graves with dead bodies inside although the number of corpses is not usually as large.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon on Friday denounced the “cowardly” and “unspeakable actions” of the killers, expressed his “most sincere condolences to the family members of the victims” and pledged to offer them his government’s full support.
The slayings in Tamaulipas “are acts of extreme savagery that show the baseness, the cruelty, to which these criminals have resorted in their bid to make profits at the cost of honest people,” he said.
“We won’t stop until we capture all the members of that criminal cell (and) their accomplices to bring them to justice,” Calderon said.
The killings also represent a blow to Calderon’s strategy of all-out war against the nation’s cartels because his government has consistently maintained that the vast majority of drug-related fatalities are people affiliated with one of the gangs.
Nationwide, violence attributed to Mexico’s drug cartels has left more than 35,000 dead since December 2006, when President Felipe Calderon took office and deployed army soldiers and Federal Police officers to crack down on the gangs.
That government offensive has been criticized by various sectors, who say the number of drug-related homicides has steadily increased in recent years and that the use of the army for law-enforcement duties has led to numerous human rights violations.
Calderon’s administration says the federal forces must be given the lead role for the time being due to widespread corruption within local and state police forces.
State and local police in Mexico are poorly paid and are often confronted with the choice known here as “plomo o plata” (lead or silver): accept a bribe for looking the other way or get killed by the drug gangs for refusing.