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Mass grave unearthed in midst of Mexico's drug war

March 15, 2008|Marla Dickerson and Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writers

MEXICO CITY — Authorities in Ciudad Juarez said Friday that they had uncovered the remains of 33 people buried in the yard of an abandoned property, a mass grave believed to be linked to the city's violent drug trade.

The grisly discovery surfaced as part of a recent government crackdown on narcotics traffickers in this city across the border from El Paso that has been gripped by a spasm of drug-related killing unseen in years. Authorities said the Juarez drug cartel might be involved in the deaths.

The same area attracted worldwide attention for the violent deaths of hundreds of women and girls beginning in the early 1990s. Many of the cases remain unsolved.

Acting on an anonymous tip, federal police on March 1 began excavating a weedy lot hidden behind a cinder-block wall in a low-income neighborhood on the city's west side. Day one yielded six corpses. It took law enforcement nearly two weeks to uncover the other remains, working with sniffer dogs, shovels and a backhoe.

All but three of the victims were men. Some were dismembered. Forensics experts said some of the corpses may have been buried for as long as five years. Police confirmed the body count Friday.

The discovery stunned neighbors in the normally tranquil La Cuesta neighborhood.

"We never imagined we were living across from a tomb," said one neighbor, who like others interviewed declined to be named for fear of reprisal.

It's the second such find in less than a month. Federal authorities unearthed nine bodies buried in the yard of a Ciudad Juarez home in late February after a drug bust.

Security experts say the discovery of old graves is a result of recent government efforts to strike hard at Mexico's drug cartels. Military and federal police have been deployed to Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana and other trafficking hot spots across the country, a strategy that has resulted in some major drug and weapons seizures as well as some high-profile arrests.

This week, Gustavo Rivera Martinez, an alleged leader of the Arellano Felix cartel, was nabbed in Cabo San Lucas by federal agents. Mario Montemayor Covarrubias, identified by Mexican news media as a key leader of a kidnapping cell of the cartel, was arrested in Tijuana earlier this month after a seven-hour shootout with authorities.

Organized crime has resorted to unprecedented violence to intimidate informants and police. Dozens of people have been killed in drug-related slayings this year in Ciudad Juarez, authorities have said. Drug violence has claimed at least 70 victims in Tijuana. Some have been mutilated and left with gruesome messages warning informants not to cooperate with law enforcement. Police officers have been gunned down in their homes in front of their families.

In January, gunmen stormed the home of Tijuana Deputy Police Chief Margarito Saldana Rivera, 43, killing him, his wife and his two daughters, ages 12 and 20. Hours earlier another high-ranking officer and his deputy were shot as they sat in their car at a busy intersection. The attacks were believed to be in retaliation for the officers' helping foil the robbery of an armored car.

This week, gunmen also killed an immigrant safety officer as he patrolled a dangerous migrant-smuggling neighborhood near the border in Tijuana.

Organized crime's violent reaction shows that the latest crackdown is working, experts say.

"I'm inclined to believe that they are sticking with a confrontational policy that leads to these kinds of gun battles and high-profile shootouts," said Robert Donnelly, the coordinator of the Justice in Mexico Project at the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute. In contrast, experts said the 42 bodies unearthed at the two locations recently in Ciudad Juarez didn't appear to be part of the recent campaign of retribution, but a clandestine, almost routine, effort on the part of drug traffickers to reprimand members in their ranks.

"If you have a problem with a distributor or someone who's selling the drugs, you don't file a lawsuit against him. You just kill him," said Jorge Chabat, a security expert at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico City. "It's a way of establishing discipline."

Seasoned observers of Ciudad Juarez's drug wars said the latest discovery had a decidedly old-school flavor, if only because the killers took the trouble to bury the bodies. Since the 1990s, drug enforcers have evolved from dumping bodies in shallow graves to hiding them in car trunks to wrapping them in blankets to simply leaving them where they drop, said Louie Gilot, who writes about border affairs for the El Paso Times.

"In the past they'd be somewhat discreet, but they're getting bolder and bolder," Gilot said. "Now they just kill them in front of people in broad daylight."

Residents of Pedregal Street, where the 33 corpses were unearthed, said there was very little coming-and-going at the abandoned property. It consisted of little more than a small garage-type structure and a weed-choked lot surrounded by a cinder-block wall and a solid, locked metal gate that blocked their view.

One neighbor recalled strangers entering occasionally on weekends, and smelling the smoke of their barbecue.

"A lot of guys went in, but it was very quiet," the neighbor said. "We never saw luxury cars or anything suspicious."

Another remembered heavy vehicles entering with what neighbors thought might be loads of produce.

"We saw trucks and trailers entering with fruit. At least that's what we thought it was."

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marla.dickerson@latimes.com

richard.marosi@latimes.com

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Dickerson reported from Mexico City and Marosi from San Diego. Special correspondent Luz del Carmen Sosa in Ciudad Juarez contributed to this report.

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