In recent weeks, Mexican authorities have extracted body after body from a series of clandestine graves in the northern state of Tamaulipas. Now comes the challenge of matching the remains to the country’s growing number of drug war disappearances.
EYES INSIDE -- LATIN AMERICA
It has been almost a year since Moisés Cruz Camacho went missing. The 20-year-old tech school student from Monterrey just up and vanished last April. "His phone didn't work anymore; he just disappeared," his sister Rebecca told the San Antonio Express-News as she stood outside the Tamaulipas Attorney General's Office Forensic Medical Service Center in Matamoros, Mexico.
The 19-year-old woman is one of dozens of relatives who have traveled to the northern Mexican city to provide investigators with DNA samples. The family members can only hope the sample don't match any of the decomposing bodies that authorities have been digging up in recent weeks in mass pits found near San Fernando, in northern Mexico's Tamaulipas state.
As of last Friday, 145 bodies have been recovered in Tamaulipas since work on the clandestine graves began late in March, according to government officials. In Durango state, the attorney general's office said it located a mass grave with the remains of 17 victims, including three heads and four skulls.
The Mexican government has begun offering cash rewards to anyone with information about locations of other burial sites. And on Friday, President Felipe Calderón said he will reinforce security on highways and roads in four border state of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Coahuila and San Luis Potosí. Witnesses tell Mexican investigators that gunmen have been stopping buses, and forcing passengers off.
That is exactly what happened to 20-year-old Gerardo Martínez, 20, who left his native Irapuato in Guanajuato state on March 27 with his brother-in-law and nephew on a bus trip to Matamoros. From there, they intended to cross the border and continue to Missouri where they had job offers, say family members. The three were reported missing after their cell phones went dead. The driver told police that armed gunmen stopped the bus and ordered the men out. The young man hasn't been seen since.
"We can only wait," Gerardo's 21-year-old wife Isabel told the Mexican daily El Universal. "I try to stay calm but there are days I can't stand it and I start to cry."
So far, 45 people have been arrested in connection with what appears to be a rash of mass executions, including 16 police officers from San Fernando who are suspected of helping drug traffickers. The latest major arrest was announced Sunday by the Mexican navy, which seized a Zeta cartel leader named Martín Omar Estrada Luna, aka "El Kilo," in San Fernando. Estrada is thought to be responsible for the murder and kidnapping of more than 200 people, including migrants and bus passengers.
The notorious Zetas drug gang and the Gulf Cartel has put Tamaulipas under siege as they wage a bloody war for control of lucrative drug routes to the United States. More than 30,000 people have died in drug related violence since President Felipe Calderón declared a war on the cartels shortly after he took office in 2006.
In a report released March 31, a UN fact-finding team suggested that at least 3,000 people have disappeared throughout Mexico since Calderón took office. Mexican government officials originally questioned the numbers contained in the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Just days later, however, authorities unearthed the first group of bodies in San Fernando.
Tamaulipas government officials have so far refused to impose a state of emergency, saying that curtailing the rights of ordinary citizens won't solve the abductions.
San Fernando was the site of a massacre last August involving 72 men, many of them Salvadoran and Guatemalan migrants trying to reach the United States. The victims reportedly refused to cooperate with traffickers, who demanded they smuggle narcotics across the border.