Mexico begins identifying 72 murdered migrant workers

Drug gang victims were on their way from Honduras, Guatemala, Brazil and elsewhere to try to get into United States.

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SAN FERNANDO, Mexico // Heavily guarded mortuary workers have begun identifying 72 migrants massacred near the US border, while human rights advocates are demanding Mexico do more to stop the exploitation and abuse of migrants that they say led to the heinous crime. Marines are protecting the pink, one-story funeral home where the bodies were taken after being discovered on a ranch Tuesday, bound, blindfolded and slumped against a wall. The Tamaulipas state assistant attorney general, Jesus de la Garza, said yesterday that 15 bodies had been identified: eight from Honduras, four from El Salvador, two from Guatemala and one from Brazil. Diplomats from several of those nations traveled to Mexico to help identify them, and Mexico's National Human Rights Commission sent investigators to monitor the process.

The government's chief security spokesman said the migrants were apparently slain because they refused to help a gang smuggle drugs. Alejandro Poire told W radio: "The information we have at this moment is that it was an attempt at forced recruitment,. It wasn't a kidnapping with the intent to get money, but the intention was to hold these people, force them to participate in organized crime ? with the terrible outcome that we know." The victims of what could be Mexico's biggest drug-gang massacre were traversing some of the nation's most dangerous territory, trying to reach Texas. The lone survivor said the assassins identified themselves as Zetas, a drug gang that dominates parts of the northern state of Tamaulipas.

In San Fernando, a crumbling colonial town of about 30,000 on Mexico's Gulf coast, a funeral home employee said the dead were stored in a refrigerated truck in the parking lot, where flies buzzed above white powder spread over bloodstains. Rights advocates warn that migrants are increasingly being kidnapped, killed and exploited by gangs as they travel through Mexico toward the United States, and they say Mexican authorities' indifference is letting the problem escalate. The Rev Pedro Pantoja, director of the Casa del Migrante in Saltillo in neighboring Coahuila state, said: "We disagree with the government that it is a consequence of battles between criminal groups. The permissiveness and complicity of the Mexican state with criminals ... is just as much to blame."

The National Human Rights Commission estimated in a report presented last year that nearly 20,000 migrants are kidnapped each year based on the number of reports it received between September 2008 and February 2009 ? numbers the federal government disputes. Mauricio Farah, who coordinated the report, said goverment corruption is at the heart of migrant abuse in Mexico. "We are talking about the complicity of several authorities along the migrant route," Mr Farah told MVS Radio yesterday. "Forty, 80, 100 migrants inside trucks or on the trains can not pass unnoticed by the authorities ... on the contrary what happens is that they are in collusion with drug gangs."

The commission president, Raul Plascencia, said yesterday that authorities never responded to its recommendations or demands for greater security for migrants. "This escalation of the violence ... demands results from the government in finding who is responsible," he said. In a report last April, Amnesty International called the plight of tens of thousands of mainly Central American migrants crossing Mexico for the US a major human rights crisis.

The report said that although the government has made some small improvements, it continues to give the issue low priority, despite the widespread involvement of corrupt police. Marines discovered the horrific massacre after the survivor, 18-year-old Luis Freddy Lala Pomavilla of Ecuador, staggered wounded to a military checkpoint. He is now recovering in Hospital from a gunshot to the neck at a hospital. Mr Lala's family told Ecuador television yesterday that he left his remote Andean town two months ago in hopes of reaching the US. "I told him not to go, but he went," one of his brothers, Luis Alfredo Lala told Ecuavisa television from Lala's home town.

His wife back in Ecuador, Maria Angelica Lala, 17 years old and pregnant, told Teleamazonas her husband paid $15,000 for the smuggler who was supposed to guide him. That smuggler apparently tried to hide Lala's fate from his family, calling on Wednesday to tell her he had reached Los Angeles. That was the day after Mexican marines raided the ranch and found the murdered migrants, 14 of them women. 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.

President 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 on 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 US 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." *AP