MEXICO CITY — A survivor has told police that 72 people found dead at a ranch near the Mexican border with Texas were migrants kidnapped by an armed group, a federal official said Wednesday.
The bodies of 58 men and 14 women were discovered Tuesday when Marines manning a checkpoint on a highway in the northern state of Tamaulipas were approached by a wounded man who said he had been attacked by gang gunmen at a nearby ranch.
A federal official said that man had identified himself an illegal migrant. The man said he and other migrants had been kidnapped by an armed group and taken to the ranch in San Fernando, a town about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Brownsville, Texas, according to the federal official, who had access to the investigation. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the was not authorized to speak publicly about the case.
The official said police believe the migrants were mostly from Central America — a population that has been increasingly targeted by drug gangs who demand money from U.S.-bound foreigners or who kidnap them to claim ransoms from relatives in the United States or their home countries.
The bodies were taken a a morgue in San Fernando, where officials were taking fingerprints.
Investigators have not determined who was behind the massacre, but the federal official noted that the area is controlled by the Zetas drug cartel, which has diversified into kidnapping migrants.
The scale of the massacre of migrants appeared to be unprecedented even by the gruesome standards of Mexican drug cartels.
It was unclear if all 72 were killed at the same time — or why. Another federal official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said investigators believe the victims were killed within recent days.
The newspaper Reforma, citing a police report, said that that the migrants were trying to reach the U.S. border and were killed when they refused to pay extortion fees demanded by the armed group. Reforma said the survivor was from Ecuador. The federal officials could not immediately confirm those details.
The Navy said it dispatched aircraft to check out the man’s report and when the gunmen saw the marines, they opened fire and tried to flee in a convoy of vehicles. One marine and three of the suspects were killed in the shootout.
Navy personnel seized 21 assault rifles, shotguns and rifles, and detained a minor.
The youth, who was apparently part of the gang, was handed over to civilian prosecutors.
It was the third time this year that Mexican authorities have discovered large masses of corpses. In the other two cases, investigators believe the bodies were dumped at the sites over a long time.
In May, authorities discovered 55 bodies in an abandoned mine near Taxco, a colonial-era city south of Mexico City that is popular with tourists.
In July, investigators found 51 corpses in two days of digging in a field near a trash dump outside the northern metropolis of Monterrey. Many of those found were believed to have been rival traffickers. But cartels often dispose of the bodies of kidnap victims in such dumping grounds.
The region has been besieged by a turf battle between the Zetas and their former ally, the Gulf cartel.
Mexico’s drug violence has surged since President Felipe Calderon dispatched soldiers and federal police to root out drug traffickers from their strongholds in northern Mexico and along the Pacific coast.
More than 28,000 people have been killed in drug-gang violence since the offensive began.