Thursday, April 7, 2011

Mexican Gunmen Tap Bus Passengers In Mass Killing by The Associated Press

he buses crawled to a halt to obey roadblocks manned by armed men, who boarded like military or police doing an inspection. One by one, they tapped certain passengers, all men, mostly young, to get off: "You. You. You."

Relatives and travel companions watched in horror as the buses pulled away without them, Tamaulipas officials quoted surviving bus passengers as saying. Less than two weeks later, security forces following reports of abducted passengers in violent Tamaulipas state bordering Texas stumbled on a collection of pits holding a total of 59 bodies.

Federal security spokesman Alejandro Poire announced Thursday that a total of 14 suspects linked to the killing had been arrested between Friday and Wednesday. Those arrests apparently led authorities to the pits.

Poire said the suspects belonged to a "criminal cell," but did not specify which gang or cartel they may have belonged to. He said the government is now placing a special emphasis on dismembering "the most violent gangs," but did not specify who they were.

The grisly discovery this week came in virtually the same spot near the town of San Fernando where 72 migrants were murdered in August and on the same day several thousand people across Mexico took to the streets to say they were fed up with the violence. The United States' top drug enforcer said in Mexico a day earlier that the violence means authorities are winning.

By Thursday, investigators had identified a few victims of the latest massacre as Mexicans, not transnational migrants trying to reach the U.S. They did not say if they were connected to 12 official missing-person reports from the buses. Authorities interviewing witnesses calculated that from 65 to 82 people went missing, Tamaulipas state Interior Secretary Morelos Canseco said.

They were kidnapped on one of Mexico's most dangerous stretches of highway that runs along Mexico's Gulf coast to the border with Texas, an area where federal authorities launched a major offensive in November seeking to regain control of territory from two warring drug gangs, the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas.

Despite an estimated 1,000 soldiers in Tamaulipas, criminals have become so brazen they apparently kidnapped dozens of passengers in a stretch of open desert that locals say lay between two military checkpoints. The Mexican military would not comment on the location of roadblocks for security reasons.

Authorities speculate the men pulled off the buses fell victim to ever more brutal recruiting efforts to replenish cartel ranks. But one local politician, who didn't want to be identified for safety reasons, said there were rumors that the Gulf Cartel was sending buses of people to fight the Zetas, who control that stretch of road and who began boarding buses in search of their rivals.

The Zetas are blamed for the migrant killings last August as well as the death of U.S. Immigration and Customs Agent Jaime Zapata in neighboring San Luis Potosi state.

Whether they are innocents caught up in the violence, mirgrants or drug traffickers executed by rivals, there are many more missing in San Fernando, the politician said, adding, "if they keep looking they'll find more and more mass graves."

More than four years and tens of thousands of troops into Mexico's crackdown on drug trafficking, authorities say they have the cartels encircled. More than 34,600 people have died in drug violence. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administrator Michele Leonhart told an international drug conference in Mexico's resort city of Cancun this week that the violence is an unfortunate symptom of success.

In addition to the migrant massacre, Tamaulipas has been the scene of all-out drug battles that have nearly emptied border towns and led to the creation of Mexico's first displacement camp for victims of drug violence. A gubernatorial candidate was assassinated last year and a U.S. missionary was murdered in January as her husband tried to evade an illegal road block on the same road where the passengers went missing.

Cartels such as the Zetas, started by elite military deserters, are turning more and more to common criminals for their assassins, Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna said at the drug conference this week.

Now their recruits may even include innocents who have never handled a gun. Survivors of the August massacre said the 72 illegal migrants from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Ecuador and Brazil were killed for refusing to work for the Zetas.

Tamaulipas state investigators and federal authorities found the pits at the site about 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of the border at Brownsville, Texas, to investigate reports that gunmen had begun stopping buses and pulling off passengers.

The first report came March 25 from a woman in the border city of Matamoros whose husband failed to arrive from San Luis Potosi, Canseco said. There were reports of at least two other buses stopped since then, he added.

State and federal investigators and soldiers conducted the raid, finding a series of eight burial pits had been found, one of which contained 43 bodies and the others 16 corpses.

Many of the victims found in the pits appeared to have died 10 to 15 days ago, dates that would roughly match the bus abductions, Canseco said.

The wave of drug-related killings drew thousands of protesters into the streets of Mexico's capital and several other cities Wednesday in marches against violence.

Many of the protesters said the government offensive has stirred up the violence.

The marches were spurred in part by the March 28 killing of Juan Francisco Sicilia, the son of Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, and six other people in Cuernavaca outside Mexico City.

As of Thursday, the elder Sicilia had taken up camp outside the governor's office in central Cuernavaca, saying he would give Gov. Marco Adame and President Felipe Calderon a week to produce those responsible for his son's death before calling for Adame's resignation and a national march to end an "absurd war."

"We are putting pressure on the government, because this can't go on," Sicilia said. "It seems that we are like animals that can be murdered with impunity."