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Drug gangs in Mexico often force migrant smugglers to hand over their charges.
If confirmed as a cartel kidnapping, it would be the most extreme case seen so far and the bloodiest massacre since President Felipe Calderon began a crackdown on drug gangs in late 2006. More than 28,000 people have died in drug-related violence since then.
Mr. Calderon condemned the massacre as the work of desperate cartels.
They “are resorting to extortion and kidnappings of migrants for their financing and also for recruitment because they are having a hard time obtaining resources and people,” he said in a statement Wednesday night.
Kidnappings and attacks on government security patrols are rampant in the highways surrounding San Fernando, where armed men claiming to belong to the Zetas roam freely and the police station is pockmarked with bullet holes from a March shooting. Last month, the bodies of 15 people were dumped in the middle of the highway from San Fernando to Matamoros, a city across the border from Brownsville, Texas.
The region is at the end of a traditional migration route for Central and South Americans who travel up the Gulf coast toward the U.S. border. Violence has soared there this year since the Zetas broke with their former allies, the Gulf cartel, sparking a vicious turf war.
Almost 20 migrants staying at a shelter outside Mexico City turned back to their countries after hearing of the killings this week, said employee Hector Lopez, a Nicaraguan who abandoned his own journey three months ago.
“I wanted to go reach the United States but when I saw what the situation was, what was happening to other migrants, I realized things could get worse for me,” he said.
Others at the shelter were stunned by the massacre but undeterred — like 35-year-old Belizean Wilber Cuellar, who said he has been deported six times from the United States and once from Canada, where he worked at a chicken packing plant.
“I’m not afraid. I’m prepared to die,” Mr. Cuellar said. “I’m tired of suffering in this world.”
Associated Press writers Alexandra Olson, Isaac Garrido and Katherine Corcoran in Mexico City; Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador; Diego Mendez in San Salvador, El Salvador; and Freddy Cuevas in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, contributed to this report.
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