Mexico massacre: How the drug war is pushing cartels into human trafficking

The Mexico massacre of 72 migrants reveals how stronger police enforcement in the Mexico drug war is pushing criminal gangs into side businesses such as extortion, kidnapping, and human trafficking.

Mexico massacre: Investigators inspect what remains of a vehicle that exploded outside the Televisa network in the northern city of Ciudad Victoria, Mexico, Friday Aug. 27.

Most drug trafficking news in Mexico, horrific as it might be, slips out of the public consciousness the following day.

But the massacre of 72 migrants in northern Mexico last week, the worst known mass killing since Felipe Calderón took office in December of 2006 declaring war against organized crime, has sparked debate about the vulnerabilities of migrants traveling through Mexico to the United States.

It also confirmed what the government and analysts have claimed for some time: that criminal gangs are increasingly diversifying their illicit activities and targeting more than just rival drug traffickers.

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

The government says that sending some 50,000 federal forces to weaken the power of criminal gangs has made them desperate and forced them increasingly into other businesses, such as extortion, kidnapping, and human trafficking.

“When it comes to justice and the social dynamic, we are losing against criminal organizations,” says Javier Oliva Posada, a drug expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “It is seen not just in the number of murders but the cruelty in each one of them.”

Tamaulipas violence continues

The violence is constant in Tamaulipas, the troubled state where the 72 migrants were massacred. On Friday, a car bomb exploded outside the broadcasting group Televisa in the state's capital of Ciudad Victoria. On Sunday, a Mexico mayor was assassinated – the second in less than two weeks.

“This cowardly crime and the condemnable violent events that have recently occurred in this part of the country reinforce the commitment to continue fighting criminal groups with all the resources of the state,” President Calderón's office said in a statement Sunday night. On Monday, the local press reported that about 3,200 federal officers, or 10 percent of the entire force, were fired for corruption charges or for failing to carry out their duties.

The government also announced over the weekend that because of the presumption that drug traffickers are the perpetrators of the massacre of the 72 migrants, the investigation is now in federal hands. The state prosecutor who was leading the investigation has been missing for several days. Authorities suspect the massacre was carried out by the Zetas, a group of Mexican Army deserters who worked for drug cartels before forming their own drug trafficking organization.

National security spokesman Alejandro Poire said the government intends to “continue its frontal assault against these organizations so that terrible events like those that occurred this week will not be repeated."

The sole survivor

Like many migrants, the 72 recently killed had left their native towns and villages in Central America and South America to seek the American dream. Blindfolded and shot one by one, they included teens and even one pregnant woman. At least one came from as far as Brazil.

The sole survivor was a young Ecuadorian man who was shot but managed to escape to a military checkpoint. His survival is the only reason the story came to light. Men in about five vehicles, he said, surrounded the pack of migrants and identified themselves as Zetas.

He was hospitalized for a gunshot to the neck and has been repatriated to Ecuador, according to the government.

The Zetas reportedly transported the captured migrants to a ranch about 100 miles south of the Texas border. When the migrants refused to become recruits, they were killed.

'Brutality escalating steadily'

Some 28,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence since Calderón became president of Mexico. But the nation is grappling with why these men and women became part of the casualties list and whether the inability to pay a ransom or the refusal to partake in organized crime is now reason enough to be killed.

“There is a kind of heartless rationality to this,” says Bruce Bagley, a drug expert at the University of Miami. “They become a liability.”

He says the Zetas are probably also sending a message to future migrants: pay up or work for us, or you die.

“The brutality has been escalating steadily,” he says, not just on the part of the Zetas but drug trafficking organizations in Mexico overall.

The Ecuadorian survivor's story has reached the far corners of Latin America, with family members across Central and South America mourning their loved ones and consulates demanding justice.

So far only one suspect has been captured, and the international spotlight puts pressure on Mexico to solve the crime – no small feat in a country where the far majority remain unsolved, says Mr. Oliva Posada of the National Autonomous University of Mexico

“Now it has become an international item,” he says.

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

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