Mass graves could strain US-Mexico relations

As of yesterday, the remains of two people were found on ranches linked

The discovery of mass graves on at least two Mexican ranches near the Texas border is more than just another grisly reminder of the unmeasured violence of Mexico's drug traffickers.

Both US and Mexican officials speculate that some of the bodies may be those of missing American citizens. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is assisting Mexican authorities in the search and body identification. What the Mexican tabloids are calling the "narco cemeteries" is sure to be a fresh test for US-Mexico relations.

Searchers unearthed two bodies Tuesday on a horse ranch outside Ciudad Jurez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. Jurez is home to one of Mexico's most powerful and violent cocaine cartels. It holds the dubious honor of being declared by Amnesty International a world capital of "disappeared" persons. The assembly-plant town is also infamous for the murders of more than 200 young women over recent years, most of which have never been cleared up.

While officials are talking of about 100 bodies that could eventually be dug up, other observers speculate the number could go higher since some 200 people are listed as having gone missing in Ciudad Jurez over the last five years. The Mexican Attorney General's Office is speculating that the missing persons may have fallen victim to the Jurez cartel, which unleashed a wave of violence in its home city after the death of its kingpin, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, in 1997.

Focus on the Jurez ranches followed testimony by Mexican cocaine runners apprehended in El Paso earlier this year who told FBI investigators where they could find mass graves, according to sources in El Paso.

That some of the bodies are being dug up on property apparently owned by El Paso resident Jaime Ortiz, son of a Mexican federal police official gunned down in Jurez in 1996, reinforces long-held concerns over the deep penetration of the illegal drug business into Mexican law enforcement.

The ranch's connection to official circles is fueling speculation that the bodies may include the victims of dozens of police kidnappings suspected to have occurred in Jurez over the last few years. Jaime Hervella, president of the El Paso-Jurez Association of Relatives and Friends of Disappeared Persons, says the majority of the 196 disappearances he has listed since 1995 are persons who were detained by supposed Mexican police agents and never seen again.

In both Washington and Mexico City, officials are lauding the degree of cooperation between the two countries on illegal drug and justice issues. But the heat could be turned up as the investigations continue and especially if speculation that the bodies could include those of two Drug Enforcement Agency agents is confirmed, analysts say.

President Clinton called the graves "a horrible example of the excesses of the drug-trafficking cartels in Mexico," and said that successful action against Colombia's drug cartels had pushed much of the drug operations north into the hands of Mexico's "particularly vicious" drug traffickers.

In Mexico City, Attorney General Jorge Madrazo Cullar rejected charges that FBI agents are violating his country's sovereignty. Some 600 Mexican law enforcement and army officials are working along with about 60 FBI and US forensics personnel. Mr. Cullar sees this as "an important operation demonstrating binational cooperation...."

But some Mexican analysts say the accolades to binational cooperation by the two countries' top officials can only temporarily mask new tensions over the mass graves - especially if the large number of suspected US victims is confirmed.

"This is going to mean more friction, more suspicions about cooperation - especially at the ground level in cooperation with Mexican law enforcement - and even greater wariness in the US about what's going on in Mexico," says Jorge Chabat, an expert in binational drug policies and relations in Mexico City. "If the number of US citizens [in the graves] is confirmed this will have an impact in US public opinion, and that could push Clinton to think hard about relations with Mexico."

Samuel Schmidt, director of border studies at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Jurez, says the Mexican attorney general's acceptance of FBI participation in the Mexican investigation is a sign of growing cooperation between the two countries. But the cooperation is a risk, he adds, "since it is as good as saying they can't do the work themselves. They are also going to have to share information that they don't usually give up."

Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo is scheduled to visit Mr. Clinton at the White House Dec. 9. Drug trafficking was already on the two presidents' agenda, but the Jurez graves will put border violence higher up, analysts say. One consequence of the discovered bodies will likely be renewed pressure on Mexico to allow US DEA agents Mexico to carry arms, Mr. Chabat says.

The mass graves and suspicions of police involvement are a further blow to Mexico's efforts to improve the image of its crime-fighting abilities and the efficiency of its police forces, analysts say.

"People have become accustomed to the bodies that are left on the roadside by drug traffickers as some kind of message," says Chabat, "but if they can kill 100 people and bury them, and no one is held responsible, that says a lot about the abilities of the Mexican state."

If the killings at the ranch turn out to be related to drug trafficking, the whole incident will have little impact among the "regular, law-abiding citizens of [Jurez]," says border specialist Schmidt. "But if the victims include some of the city's disappeared who weren't involved in the drug trade, then I think we'll see some outrage."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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