Mexican marines uncovered 72 bodies in what they say could be the largest mass grave ever discovered in the country's deadly drug war.
The marines were manning a roadblock in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas on Tuesday when a man who'd been shot asked for medical help. They said the man told them about a nearby ranch that served as a base for one of the drug gangs. As the marines attempted to investigate, a firefight broke out. One soldier and three alleged cartel gunmen were killed.
After the gunfight, the marines found the bodies of 58 men and 14 women at the remote ranch about 90 miles south of the Texas border.
Navy Vice Adm. Jose Luis Vergara said the wounded survivor reported that gunmen who identified themselves as Zetas kidnapped him and other migrants and took them to the ranch in San Fernando. Vergara said Wednesday that investigators believe the migrants were from Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador and Honduras.
The bodies were taken to a morgue in San Fernando, where officials were taking fingerprints.
The Mexican military did not provide many details but said in a statement, "The federal government categorically condemns the barbarous acts committed by criminal organizations." The military also said it seized 21 assault rifles, almost 7,000 rounds of ammunition, several flak jackets and camouflage uniforms.
Officials say this is the largest mass grave discovered since President Calderon launched his offensive against the cartels nearly four years ago. More than 28,000 people have died in the savage and escalating drug war. In July, authorities found 51 corpses near a trash dump outside the northern city of Monterrey. In May, investigators uncovered 55 bodies in an abandoned mine near the colonial city of Taxco south of Mexico City.
There has been a huge increase over the last few years of kidnapping and extortion of migrants by gangs affiliated with Mexico's drug cartels.
Father Giann Antonio Baggio, who runs a shelter for migrants in Nuevo Laredo, says the criminals completely control the Mexican side of the border.
"They really control the river, and they stop anybody who tries to cross by themselves and without their permission," he told NPR's Jason Beaubien. "They have to pay. If they don't pay, they get beaten up or killed."
Baggio says the number of migrants trying to get across the border is low right now in part because of the violence. Tamaulipas is in the midst of a bloody battle between the Zetas and their former bosses, the Gulf cartel, for control of the border between Laredo and Brownsville.
Rupert Knox, who led a recent report for Amnesty International on the escalating dangers facing migrants as they try to cross Mexico, said there's an elaborate network of criminals who grab migrants off trains or near the border. The gangs then force the migrants to provide them with a phone number of relatives either in the United States or back home.
Knox says the kidnappers call the relatives and demand between $500 and $5,000 for the migrants' release.
"In many instances, anybody who can't pay or doesn't have a number, they'll kill on the spot to produce that information," he says.
It was unclear whether all 72 people found Tuesday were killed at the same time — or why. A federal official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press investigators believe the victims were killed within recent days.
With reporting from NPR's Jason Beaubien and John Burnett. Material from The Associated Press was also used in this report.