The site of a mass grave with some charred spots is seen in the suburb of Juarez, Mexico, July 22.

Mexico mass grave highlights abuse of migrants heading to US

The Mexico mass grave of 72 bodies is seen as the latest evidence that drug cartels are increasingly preying on migrants headed to the US.

With attention focused on the US tightening its borders and stepping up deportations, mostly of undocumented Mexicans, the plight of migrants crossing through Mexico is often overlooked.

Their reality became shockingly clear on Wednesday with the discovery of a Mexico mass grave. The 72 corpses are believed to be of Central and South Americans who were journeying through the deserts of Mexico in hopes of reaching US soil. Mexican officials are investigating whether the migrants were victims of drug cartels that are increasingly reliant on kidnappings, recruitment, and extortion of undocumented migrants to pad their pockets.

"It's absolutely terrible, and it demands the condemnation of all of our society," government spokesman for security issues Alejandro Poire said during a press conference Wednesday.

STORY: Mexico mass grave highlights gruesome drug war

President Felipe Calderón's office issued a statement condemning the attack, adding that government action against drug cartels has led them to extort and kidnap migrants as a financing mechanism. "This is a result of the activity of the state against them, which has significantly weakened the operational capacity of criminal groups," the statement said.

Report: 10,000 migrants kidnapped in six months

An estimated 10,000 migrants were kidnapped in Mexico between September 2008 and February 2009, according to a report from the National Human Rights Commission. Amnesty International has urged the Mexican government to do more to protect migrants passing through.

Not only are they targeted for money, says Mr. Poire, but they are also seen as potential recruits for drug cartels locked in a deadly battle that has taken 28,000 lives since 2006, when Mr. Calderón sent the military to fight organized crime.

This could be the deadliest massacre since the Calderón effort was launched, but it certainly is not isolated. In July, 51 bodies were found at a trash dump outside the industrial city of Monterrey. In May, 55 bodies were found in an old mine near the town of Taxco, not far from Mexico City.

The northern state of Tamaulipas, where the 72 bodies were found, has been submerged in a violent struggle between drug gangs trying to secure illegal trafficking routes into the US.

Migrants from South and Central America

The story of the latest mass grave broke after an Ecuadorian migrant sought help from a military checkpoint in Tamaulipas. He claimed to have escaped the kidnapping that befell his fellow travelers, and pointed authorities to the scene of the crime at a ranch, about 100 miles south of the US border. Gunfire erupted as the military arrived to investigate the ranch, killing one marine and three gunmen.

The Ecuadorian migrant, now hospitalized, told the Mexican press that the migrants were kidnapped by an armed group that identified themselves as the Zetas, who were trained as Mexican elite forces before breaking off and joining the drug trade. The Zetas may have sought to recruit the migrants to work in the drug trade, according to local reports.

The Ecuadorian migrant said he was traveling with people from Ecuador, Honduras, El Salvador, and Brazil. Overall, 58 men were found and 14 women. The Mexican government said it is trying to verify the identities of those dead with the various embassies involved.

It is unclear if they were killed all at once or over time. It is also unclear why these victims were targeted.

An increasingly treacherous journey north

The journey through Mexico has become more and more treacherous as suspected drug traffickers branch out into other businesses, including human trafficking. They are increasingly targeting migrants in a variety of ways, say analysts, authorities, and migrants.

Migrants are often victims not only because they are presumed to have cash on hand, but because many have relatives with cash in the US. This was confirmed to the Monitor during interviews with migrants at Tultitlan in central Mexico, a crossing ground for many heading to America.

At a shelter in Tultitlan, migrants say they are victims both of Mexican authorities seeking bribes and Mexican gangs who beat them for their cash, and worse, kidnap them in hopes of getting ransom from relatives in the US.

“It is not easy to be here as a migrant,” says Leticia Junez, a nun who works with migrants in Tultitlan. “Not only do they leave their families, they face all the dangers of crossing illegally, especially kidnapping.”

The migrant shelter where she volunteers in Tultitlan was itself victim of an assault in July, when men claiming to be federal police stormed the center and tried to speed away with migrants in their vans. The volunteers stopped it from happening. But it underscores their vulnerability, Sister Junez says. The case is still under investigation.

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