By Adriana Gomez Licon and Katherine Corcoran
Bodies found thrown on the middle of a major road close to San Fernando.
With only odd jobs to support a young wife and 2-year-old son in their concrete hut on a dirt road, Uriel Carvajal decided to seek work in the U.S., heading from central Mexico by bus to the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas.
When he didn't call home, his two brothers went looking for him, also by bus. Now none of the brothers - Uriel, 21, Rene, 28, and Cirilo, 23 - has been heard from.
Nearly a month after Uriel left home, the Carvajal family only knows that his brother Rene's identification card turned up in one of 26 pits found in Tamaulipas, where 145 bodies have been dug up so far. Authorities told the family to take Uriel's toddler, Ariel, to state offices to give a DNA sample.
The same trauma visited three times on one family reflects larger questions that so far state and federal authorities have failed to answer: How could bodies pile up again in a place just 90 miles from the U.S. border where 72 migrants were slaughtered eight months ago, then the worst mass murder of innocents in Mexico's fight against organized crime?
And how could these new horrors emerge only five months after state and federal authorities announced with much fanfare that they were mounting a coordinated offensive to take Tamaulipas back from the hands of warring drug cartels?
"That is precisely the question we all have," said Fernando Batista Jimenez, an investigator for Mexico's National Commission on Human Rights who is handling the case in the town of San Fernando, Tamaulipas. "It's no more than a reflection that the authorities have not been able to contain this wave of violence in general and particularly in places such as this case in Tamaulipas."
The Mexican Navy said Saturday it had captured the presumed leader of the San Fernando cell of the Zetas drug gang, suspected in both mass killings. Martin Omar Estrada Luna, alias "El Kilo," is believed to be involved in the killing of the 145, as well as the migrant massacre last August in the violent border state across from Texas, according to a statement issued by the navy.
The Mexican government last week offered a a 15 million-peso ($1.27 million) reward for information leading to Estrada Luna's capture. The navy provided no others details Saturday.
President Felipe Calderon on Tuesday implored Mexicans to say "Ya, basta!" - Enough! - stressing that their anger should be directed at criminals and not authorities.
The line between those enforcing and breaking laws, however, has been fuzzy. On Wednesday, 16 police officers in San Fernando, where both slaughters occurred, were detained for protecting the Zetas. That led national radio talk show host Carmen Aristegui to ask on Thursday: "Which is which?"
Requests by The Associated Press to interview Calderon's security spokesman, Alejandro Poire, and officials from the Department of Interior, Defense and the Attorney General were not answered.
The Federal Attorney General (PGR) Marisela Morales speaks of the massacre in San Fernando.
But public and off-the-record statements by parties involved indicate that Tamaulipas presents a complex situation that even federal forces can't handle. Generations of mistrust complicate the federal effort, as well as links between local officials and organized crime dating back to the 1920s Prohibition era in the U.S., when the border state became a popular smuggling route for liquor.
San Fernando is the largest township area-wise in Tamaulipas, with about 58,000 people in a region roughly the size of Delaware covered with countless flat, dirt farming roads that enable people and goods to traverse undetected.
As a result, the 72 police officers there, 36 per shift, patrol less than 5 percent of the territory, according to Tamaulipas state interior secretary Morelos Canseco.
With 16 officers detained because of the recent killings, the already minimal force is down by 20 percent.
In November, Mexico's federal government said it was launching a major offensive, "Coordinate Operation Northeast," to reinforce government authority in Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, the two states most heavily affected by a surge in violence following a split between the Gulf and Zetas drug gangs. Officials provided no details at the time, except to say the government was sending "thousands of units" of military and federal police.
Calderon again on Friday said he has ordered the increase of federal forces in Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and parts of the neighboring states of Coahuila and San Luis Potosi without providing details, and that he would reinforce operations to ensure security for those traveling on roads and in buses.
Mexico Interior Secretary Francisco Blake Mora earlier in the week announced a five-point initiative to take back Tamaulipas, including the federal monitoring of transport buses.
Blake blamed the body count on weaknesses in state government, "evidence, on the one hand, of fragile local institutions' inability to act promptly and effectively in dealing with crime, and, on the other hand, the involvement of local security agents in crime."
Canseco countered to the AP Thursday that the federal government has jurisdiction over the road near the Gulf Coast leading to the U.S. border where buses were reportedly stopped and boarded by gunmen. Canseco added that federal police patrol the highway from Tamaulipas' capital of Ciudad Victoria through San Fernando to the Texas border.
State authorities know they have to clean up their security forces, Canseco said, but they haven't received needed backup from the military and federal police.
"The epithets and insults are a slippery slope," Canseco said of Blake's criticism. "The government of Tamaulipas has acted decisively against these abductions on a federal highway against passengers on a federally licensed bus line. Acts committed by organized crime, federal crimes that fall under federal authority."
Meanwhile, it remains uncertain if or when eight people detained in the August migrant massacre will be brought to justice, and 14 of the 72 bodies of Central and South Americans migrants killed then still have not been identified.
"The government never managed to find precise information about the 72 migrants," said Raul Benitez, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "That meant that the criminal cell that carried out the massacre remained intact and continued operating ... now we know it's a cell of Zetas, and there were large numbers of municipal police involved."
Besides Estrada Luna, the Mexican government is offering a 15 million-peso ($1.27 million) reward for information leading to the arrest of Salvador Martinez Escobedo, another alleged leader of the Zetas cell in San Fernando, plus 10 million pesos ($846,000) for Roman Palomo Rincones and 5 million pesos ($423,000) for Sarai Diaz Arroyo, who both allegedly participated in the latest massacre.
Another 17 suspects tied to the Zetas were detained earlier in the killings. Police said that some of them have confessed to abducting passengers from buses and killing them.
Prosecutors have suggested that some of the bus abductions have been attempts to forcefully recruit new members for the gang.
The bodies of 70 of those victims arrived in Mexico City on Thursday for further genetic testing to confirm their identities. Tamaulipas state prosecutors said in a statement that 23 of the 145 victims were killed at least a month before the abduction reports surfaced.
Rumors of assaults aboard buses started as early as February and later that month some bus lines stopped running after 9 p.m. The price of tickets on regional bus lines from the Tamaulipas state capital of Ciudad Victoria through San Fernando to northern border cities started rising in recent months from 190 pesos ($16) in November to and 265 pesos ($23) by March, leading locals to speculate that the bus companies were trying to cover possible extortion costs.
The first anonymous complaint of a kidnapping, however, came in around March 22, a day before Carvajal left his picturesque mountain village of 2,000.
Canseco said not a single bus line filed a complaint. National or regional bus companies refused to comment on the Tamaulipas case to the AP.
But states around the country have called Tamaulipas in the last week with reports of missing persons from buses there. Many, like Carvajal, were traveling to the border region hoping to cross into the U.S.
Carvajal only finished sixth grade and worked informal jobs raising cattle for ranchers and making tortillas in a factory. His hometown was largely rural, where men plow fields of corn and alfalfa with horses, while others commute to Mexico City to work in construction.
Carvajal's wife, Veronica Duran, 21, said he was going to meet a brother already working in the U.S. The family didn't know Tamaulipas was such a dangerous place when the brothers left five days later to look for him. They weren't certain enough that he was missing to call police.
The Carvajal family made a pact not to talk about their case, reluctantly providing a few details. But Duran said she's holding onto hope that her husband won't be found in the graves of San Fernando.
"We'll continue to believe he's not there," she said, "until we know for sure."
Associated Press writers E. Eduardo Castillo and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City and Efrain Klerigan in Ciudad Victoria, Mexico, contributed to this report.