|MEXICO CITY ? A wounded migrant stumbled into a military checkpoint and led marines to a
gruesome scene, what may be the biggest massacre so far in Mexico's bloody drug war: a
room strewn with the bodies of 72 fellow travelers, some piled on top of each other, just
100 miles from their goal, the U.S. border.
The 58 men and 14 women were killed by the Zetas gang, the migrant told investigators
Wednesday. The gang, started by former Mexican army special forces soldiers, is known to
extort money from migrants who pass through its territory.
If authorities corroborate the story, it would be the most horrifying example yet of the
plight of migrants trying to cross a country where drug cartels are increasingly scouting
shelters and highways, hoping to extort cash or even recruit vulnerable immigrants.
It's absolutely terrible and it demands the condemnation of all of our society, said
government security spokesman Alejandro Poire.
The Ecuadorean migrant staggered to the checkpoint on Tuesday, with a bullet wound in his
neck. He told the marines he had just escaped from gunmen at a ranch in San Fernando, a
town in the northern state of Tamaulipas about 100 miles from Brownsville, Texas.
The Zetas so brutally control some parts of Tamaulipas that even many Mexicans do not
dare to travel on the highways in the state. Many residents in the state tell of loved ones or
friends who have disappeared traveling from one town to the next. Many of these
kidnappings are never reported for fear that police are in league with the criminals.
The marines scrambled helicopters to raid the ranch, drawing gunfire from cartel gunmen.
One marine and three gunmen died in a gunbattle. Then the marines discovered the bodies,
some slumped in the chairs where they had been shot, one federal official said.
Photos posted on websites of local media Wednesday night showed piles of people, some
of them blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their back, slumped on top of each
other along the cinderblock walls of an abandoned warehouse.
The migrant told authorities that his captors identified themselves as Zetas, and that the
migrants were from Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador and Honduras.
Poire said the government was in contact with those countries to corroborate the identities
of the migrants.
The Ecuadorean Embassy in Mexico said it was in contact with the surviving migrant, Luis
Freddy Lala Pomavilla, and was trying to find out if any of its citizens were among the dead.
Marcio Araujo, Brazil's consul general in Mexico, said documents found at the scene
indicated at least four of the dead were Brazilian. Consular officials for El Salvador said they
had no immediate information on whether any Salvadorans were among the victims.
The marines seized 21 assault rifles, shotguns and rifles, and detained a minor, apparently
part of the gang.
Authorities said they were trying to determine whether the victims were killed at the same
time ? and why. Poire noted migrants are frequently kidnapped by cartel gunmen
demanding money, sometimes contacting relatives in the U.S. to demand ransoms.
Poire also said the government believes cartels are increasingly trying to recruit migrants as
foot soldiers ? a concern that has also been expressed by U.S. politicians demanding more
security at the border.
The government has confirmed at least seven cases of cartels kidnapping groups of
migrants so far this year, said Antonio Diaz, an official with the National Migration Institute,
a think tank that studies immigration.
But other groups say migrant kidnappings are much more rampant. In its most recent
study, the National Human Rights Commission said some 1,600 migrants are kidnapped in
Mexico each month. It based its figures on the number of reports it received between
September 2008 and February 2009.
Violence along the northeastern border with the U.S. has soared this year since the Zetas
broke with their former employer, the Gulf cartel. Authorities say the Gulf cartel has joined
forces with its once-bitter enemies, the Sinaloa and La Familia gangs, to destroy the Zetas,
who have grown so powerful they now have reach into Central America.
Teresa Delagadillo, who works at the Casa San Juan Diego shelter in Matamoros just across
from Brownsville, said she often hears stories about criminal gangs kidnapping and beating
migrants to demand money ? but never a horror story on the scale of this week's
There hadn't been reports that they had killed them, she said.
It was the third time this year that Mexican authorities have discovered large masses of
corpses. In the other two cases, investigators believe the bodies were dumped at the sites
over a long time.
In May, authorities discovered 55 bodies in an abandoned mine near Taxco, a colonial-era
city south of Mexico City that is popular with tourists.
In July, investigators found 51 corpses in two days of digging in a field near a trash dump
outside the northern metropolis of Monterrey. Many of those found were believed to have
been rival traffickers. But cartels often dispose of the bodies of kidnap victims in such
Authorities are still digging in a mine shaft where seven bodies were removed over the
weekend in the central state of Hidalgo. Two more bodies have been pulled out since,
officials said Wednesday.
The Rev. Alejandro Solalinde, who runs a shelter in the southern state of Oaxaca, where
many migrants pass on their way to Tamaulipas, said the Zetas have put informants inside
shelters to find out which migrants have relatives in the U.S. ? the most lucrative targets
for kidnap-extortion schemes.
He said he constantly hears horror stories, including people who say their companions
have been killed with baseball bats in front of the others.
Solalinde said he has been threatened by Zetas demanding access to his shelters.
He said the gangsters told him: If we kill you, they'll close the shelter and we'll have to look
all over for the migrants.
Associated Press Writer Alicia A. Caldwell in El Paso, Texas, contributed to this report.