Kidnapped wedding party killed in Mexico

Police searching for a bridegroom who was kidnapped at gunpoint as he walked his new wife out of a wedding ceremony said yesterday that their mutilated bodies, together with those of his brother and uncle, who were also kidnapped, had been found in the back of a pick-up truck abandoned in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez.

Rafael Morales Valencia, his brother Jaime, and his uncle Guadalupe Morales Arriola, were apparently tortured for several days before being killed and dumped in a Toyota Tacoma with Texan licence plates. They had been taken hostage on Friday night at the El Señor de la Misericordia Catholic church, moments after organ music signalled the end of the marriage service.

Violent killings by gangs linked to the drug trade have reached epidemic levels across much of northern Mexico, and in Juarez alone 856 have been reported so far this year. But Mr Valencia's murder has nonetheless shocked the jaded public: previously, church property was considered to be one of the few no-go areas for organised criminals.

"I'm confused, frustrated and in despair. My wife, she is devastated," said the victim's father, who is also called Rafael. "I never thought something like this would happen to us. He was married like for five minutes, and then everything happened. There was no reason for this to occur."

All three of the kidnap victims were US citizens, who had legally emigrated from Juarez several years ago, so the FBI is now involved in the hunt for Valencia's killers. Sources at the agency described the attack, telling the El Paso Times how gunmen burst into the church and ordered to congregation to lie face down on the floor.

One man who attempted to flee the building was shot in the back and killed. The three hostages were pulled from the bridal party and frogmarched to a car. Unusually for a kidnapping that seems to have involved score-settling, no ransom note was ever received.

An estimated 4,300 killings have been linked to organised crime in Mexico since 2006, when the country's president, Felipe Calderon, launched a "war" on drug cartels which control routes by which cocaine is smuggled from South America, where it is produced, to the US.

Though several prominent cartel leaders have been arrested or killed, that has sparked fierce fighting between rival gangs seeking to take control of newly-vacant territories. Juarez, where 2,600 people have died, is a particular flashpoint because of huge profits on offer to anyone who can control local routes over the Rio Grande to El Paso. Transporting cocaine across the US border increases its street value by 3,000 per cent.