Police officers wearing face masks stand guard next to a truck, containing… (Jorge Dan Lopez / Reuters )
Reporting from Mexico City — The number of bodies pulled from mass graves in northeastern Mexico has risen to 145, officials said Friday, following the arrest of 16 police officers for allegedly providing cover to drug-cartel gangsters suspected in the grisly slayings.
Morelos Canseco, a senior government official for the state of Tamaulipas where the clandestine burials were discovered, said another 23 bodies were extracted Thursday. Unlike the previous victims who are thought to be passengers kidnapped recently from buses, the latest corpses had apparently been buried for a much longer time, Canseco said in a radio interview.
Canseco said none of the bus companies whose passengers were kidnapped ever informed authorities about the crimes. The newspaper Reforma reported Friday that there are 400 unclaimed suitcases at bus depots in the route's final destination city of Matamoros.
President Felipe Calderon, whose government has come under withering criticism for failure to protect its citizens on national roadways, on Friday condemned the Tamaulipas killings as "barbaric cowardice" and pledged more troops for the area and to search for additional suspects.
All 145 of the bodies have been found in pits around the town of San Fernando, about 80 miles south of Brownsville, Texas, in Tamaulipas state. Digging continues in search of additional victims, state officials said.
The federal attorney general's office said in a statement that the 16 arrested police officers were members of San Fernando's municipal force.
Previously, federal authorities had arrested 17 other suspects in the slayings. Atty. Gen. Marisela Morales identified them as hit men from the notorious Zeta drug cartel. She announced a reward equivalent to $2.5 million for information leading to the capture of four additional suspected Zeta gunmen.
The discovery of the Tamaulipas graves over the last week has horrified Mexicans already reeling from years of drug-war bloodshed. Many of these latest victims are thought to be Mexicans who were pulled from buses that traverse the busy roadways to the United States. San Fernando was also the site last summer of a massacre of 72 mostly Central American migrants believed slain by the Zetas.
"San Fernando has become the reference point for a region without any law, other than that of organized crime and impunity," Joaquin Lopez-Doriga, Mexico's leading television news anchor, wrote in a scathing column Thursday. "The commission of crimes and criminals of incomprehensible magnitude can only happen in the atmosphere of a failed state" like Tamaulipas.
Early Thursday, a refrigerated truck with a federal police escort transported between 70 and 76 of the bodies to Mexico City, where forensic specialists will attempt to identify them. There were conflicting reports on the exact number transported.
At least one of the detained Zeta suspects reportedly confessed to kidnapping bus passengers in late March and killing and burying 43 of them.
Thousands of people have gone missing in Mexico in the nearly 41/2 years since the drug war intensified. Increasingly their bodies are turning up in clandestine graves. In some cases they are snatched for forced labor for the drug gangs; sometimes they are held to extract ransom from relatives. Some are simply robbed and killed.
Just this week, the bodies of 13 people were discovered in clandestine graves in the Pacific state of Sinaloa, near the city of Los Mochis. Two were identified as female university students kidnapped last fall, and a third was thought to be a doctor because of the clothes he wore. In the border state of Sonora, five bodies were unearthed near Nogales. And the tortured bodies of eight men between the ages of 18 and 25, all with a single gunshot to the head, were found dumped in western state of Michoacan.
In another border state, Chihuahua, four young men, who witnesses reported seeing being hauled off by an elite police force March 26, were found slain, wrapped in black plastic bags, their hands bound. Three police officers are being held.
Amnesty International, in a statement Thursday, called on the Mexican government to expose and investigate the "collusion" between drug gangs and public officials, including police.
The "discovery of mass graves has served to highlight the Mexican government's wider failure to deal with the country's public security crisis and to reduce criminal violence, which has left many populations vulnerable to attacks, abductions and killings," Amnesty said.