- Associated Press - Monday, August 30, 2010

MEXICO CITY | Mexican security forces last week were bringing refrigeration equipment for the bodies of 72 Central and South American migrants whose massacre at a remote ranch in northern Mexico is thought to have been the work of drug-cartel gunmen, while investigators tried to determine their identities and why they were gunned down 100 miles from the U.S. border.

The sole survivor — an Ecuadorean who escaped and stumbled wounded to a marine checkpoint on a highway — told authorities that his captors had identified themselves as Zetas, a drug gang whose control of parts of the northern state of Tamaulipas is so brutal and complete that even many Mexicans avoid traveling its highways.

If confirmed as a cartel kidnapping, the Tamaulipas massacre would be perhaps the most extreme case seen so far and the bloodiest massacre of Mexico’s drug war.

President Felipe Calderon said cartels increasingly are trying to recruit migrants as foot soldiers — a concern that also has been expressed by U.S. politicians demanding more security at the border.

Mr. Calderon insisted that such activities indicate that the cartels have been battered by thousands of troops and federal police battling them in their strongholds and are desperate for alternate means of income. He frequently makes that argument, while critics counter that Mexico’s cartels have only gotten more powerful and brutal since the government launched its offensive in late 2006.

The cartels “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,” Mr. Calderon said in a statement on Wednesday.

Migrants running the gantlet up Mexico to reach the United States have long faced extortion, violence and theft. But reports have grown of mass kidnappings of migrants, who are forced to give the telephone numbers of relatives in the United States or back home who are then required to transfer ransom payments to the abductors.

Teresa Delagadillo, who works at the Casa San Juan Diego shelter in Matamoros just across from Brownsville, Texas, said she often hears stories about criminal gangs kidnapping and beating migrants to demand money — but never a horror story on the scale of last week’s massacre.

“There hadn’t been reports that they had killed them,” she said.

In an April report, Amnesty International called the plight of tens of thousands of mainly Central American migrants crossing Mexico for the U.S. a major human rights crisis. The report called their journey “one of the most dangerous in the world” and said every year an untold number of migrants disappear without a trace.

Mexico’s 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 about 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.

Authorities said they were trying to determine whether the 72 victims in Tamaulipas were killed at the same time — and why. The government was taking the bodies from the ranch to the small town of San Fernando for identification and will have to move in refrigeration equipment that the local authorities lack, said Ricardo Najera, a spokesman for the federal attorney general’s office.

Last Tuesday, Ecuadorean migrant Luis Freddy Lala Pomavilla staggered to the checkpoint with a bullet wound in his neck. He told the Mexican marines he had just escaped from gunmen at a ranch in San Fernando, 100 miles south of Brownsville.

He described a hellish scene of a room strewn with the bodies of 72 migrants, some piled on top of each other.

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