33 bodies found in mass grave near border


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 border city's violent drug trade.

The discovery surfaced as part of a recent government crackdown on narcotics traffickers in this city across from El Paso, Texas, which 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 attention for the deaths of hundreds of women and girls beginning in the early 1990s. Many of those cases remain unsolved.

Acting on an anonymous tip, federal police March — began excavating a weedy lot hidden behind cinder block walls in a low-income neighborhood on the city's west side. The first day yielded six corpses. It took law enforcement nearly two weeks to uncover the rest, 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 might have been buried for as long as five years. Police confirmed the body count Friday.

The discovery stunned neighbors in the hardscrabble but normally tranquil La Cuesta neighborhood. "We never imagined we were living across a tomb," said a resident who declined to be identified.

It's the second such finding in less than a month. Separately, 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. Mexico's military and federal police have been deployed to Juarez, Tijuana and other trafficking hot spots, a strategy that has resulted in some major drug and weapons seizures as well as some high-profile arrests.

Earlier this week, Gustavo Rivera Martinez, the alleged leader of the Arellano-Feliz cartel, was nabbed in Cabo San Lucas by Mexican federal agents. Mario Montemayor Covarrubias, identified by Mexican 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.

In retaliation, organized crime has gone to unprecedented heights to intimidate informants and police. Dozens of people have been killed in drug-related violence 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 retaliation for the cops' helping foil the robbery of an armored car.

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

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, coordinator of the Justice In Mexico Project at the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute.

In contrast, experts said the 42 bodies recently unearthed in Ciudad Juarez don't appear to be part of the recent terror campaign, rather a clandestine, almost routine effort on the part of drug traffickers to reprimand members within 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 Economic Center for Research and Teaching in Mexico City. "It's a way of establishing discipline."

Seasoned observers of Ciudad Juarez's drug wars said the 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, according to 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 little coming and going at the abandoned property. It consisted of little more than a garage-type structure and a weed-choked lot surrounded by a cinder block wall and a solid, locked metal gate that blocked their view. No one had been seen entering or exiting the property for years.

One neighbor, who, like the others was too fearful to give a name, recalled strangers entering occasionally on weekends and smelling the smoke of their barbecue.

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

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

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

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

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