Drug Cartel Suspected In 72 Migrants Deaths

Authorities in Mexico are expressing shock at the discovery of a room strewn with the bodies of 58 men and 14 women. A wounded migrant says the victims were killed by a drug gang. The gang, started by former soldiers, is known to extort money from migrants.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

In Mexico, it was a gruesome scene, even by the recent standards of the country's bloody drug war. On a remote, abandoned ranch near a small town in northeastern Mexico,�72 migrants from Central and South America were found gunned down yesterday, many of the bodies piled on top of each other. They were found after one of the migrants managed to escape and reach soldiers at a military checkpoint.

NPRs Jason Beaubien joins us from Mexico City for more on the story.

Good morning, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: Does anybody know who did this?

BEAUBIEN: It appears that this was done by the Zetas. The one survivor who managed to get away said that they were Zetas. The Zetas are one of the most powerful drug cartels in Mexico. They're a group that also has branched out into smuggling of migrants. They also have been accused of smuggling oil out of Tamaulipas and selling it across the border, in Texas. And they are the gang that is being accused of doing this.

WERTHEIMER: Do we know why all the migrants were gathered together?

BEAUBIEN: It is quite common for migrants who are moving across Mexico to move -often - in large groups. Some of them move on the trains. When they arrive into a particular town, you could have several hundred migrants all arriving at the same time into a town.

Also, the migrant smugglers often move them in large groups, in trucks and other vehicles. So it isn't uncommon that you'd have a large group of migrants like this bunched together.

WERTHEIMER: But what would be the point of - if the drug cartel itself brought them in, in a truck, say, what would be the point of killing them?

BEAUBIEN: It is unclear exactly why they would kill them. What appears to have happened, and what the one survivor recounted, was that this group of migrants refused to pay ransoms to the Zetas. And the Zetas, the people who were holding them, got angry and killed them all. Obviously, it doesn't seem to make sense that if you kill them all, you're not going to get any ransoms out of them. But that is the initial explanation for why they were killed.

WERTHEIMER: And how did the Mexican authorities respond to this?

BEAUBIEN: They have come out and stated their indignation with this. The Mexican navy, which was - their soldiers were manning the checkpoint when this one survivor came out. They responded quite quickly, sent in helicopters. They attacked this ranch, that's out in a very remote part of Tamaulipas. And after a firefight, that is when they discovered this incredible massacre.

WERTHEIMER: There have been pretty awful things happening in Mexico recently. Do you have any idea why it seems suddenly to be on such a large scale?

BEAUBIEN: Well, certainly this massacre, in Tamaulipas, seems to be a result of a split between the Zetas and their former bosses, the Gulf Cartel. And those two groups have been fighting for control of Tamaulipas. And as that has happened, Tamaulipas itself has gotten incredibly violent. The leading candidate for governor in Tamaulipas was gunned down. You have parts of the state which people say are basically no-go zones, because the Zetas control it.

The government itself in Mexico said that this is a sign of how desperate the drug cartels are getting, that they're branching out into these other areas. You know, it's unclear whether that is really what's behind this. But it is clear that there is a lot of tension, a lot of violence, and a lot of killing going on in some parts of Mexico and particularly, in Tamaulipas.

WERTHEIMER: Jason, thank you very much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

WERTHEIMER: We've been talking to Jason Beaubien. He is NPR's Mexico City bureau chief.

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