Mexico bleeding to death

Another 72 corpses found in a new mass grave. Feuding cartels blamed for displays of mutilated bodies. Death toll in four-year drugs war passes 28,000

The shootout left four people dead, but that was just the beginning. As dust began to settle on a ranch in north-eastern Mexico, thought to have been owned by one of the world's most powerful drug cartels, the battle-hardened Marines stumbled upon their first decomposing corpse.

Minutes later, they found a second, then a third. By the time troops had finished searching the remote property, roughly 90 miles from the US border, a total of 72 contorted bodies had been laid out in rows beneath the summer sunshine. The 54 men and 18 women had all been recently murdered.

A lone wounded survivor, who was left for dead but later stumbled upon a military checkpoint, told local newspapers yesterday that he and the victims were illegal migrants from Central America trying to make their way to the US. They had been taken hostage by the Zetas, a gang of drug-runners who have recently taken to kidnapping and human trafficking. The Ecuadorian man said his group was taken to a ranch by gunmen and shot after they refused to pay ransoms.

The discovery on Tuesday afternoon marked a new low in a brutal conflict that has taken the lives of an estimated 28,000 Mexicans since the President, Felipe Calderon, declared "war" on the nation's wealthy and extraordinarily well-armed drug cartels in 2007.

Troops originally raided the ranch near San Fernando, in the Gulf coast state of Tamaulipas, after a man with gunshot wounds approached a military checkpoint and said he had been attacked by a narcotics gang. Naval helicopters were dispatched to the ranch but, as they approached, several gunmen opened fire with automatic weapons and tried to flee in a convoy of vehicles. In the ensuing shootout, a Marine and three suspected cartel members were killed.

At the ranch, the Marines seized 21 assault rifles, shotguns and rifles, with 6,000 ammunition rounds. Then they discovered what a spokesman called "the lifeless bodies of 72 people". It was not clear whether the victims were separately, or in a single massacre.

Mass graves are becoming an increasingly common by-product of the wave of drug-related violence sweeping the country. In May, 55 bodies were pulled from abandoned mine near Taxco, just south of Mexico City. Last month, 51 more were unearthed from a field next to a rubbish tip near the northern city of Monterrey.

They provide stark reminders of the growing cheapness of life in a conflict that is constantly plumbing new depths of barbarity. Over the weekend, four decapitated bodies, their genitals and index fingers cut off, were hung upside down from a bridge just outside the nation's capital. Two more were dumped nearby on Tuesday.

"The federal government categorically condemns the barbarous acts committed by criminal organisations," the Navy said of the latest atrocity. "Society should condemn these acts, which illustrate the absolute necessity to continue fighting crime with all rigour."

Tamaulipas, on the north-eastern tip of Mexico bordering Texas, provides a stark illustration of the problems facing the forces of law and order across the country, as they attempt to crack down on gangs smuggling cocaine from South and Central America, where it is produced, to the US, where most of it is consumed.

For years, local supply routes were controlled by the Gulf Cartel, a long-established criminal organisation which kept its activities largely beneath the public radar. But in 2007, shortly after the newly-elected President Calderon announced a crackdown on the drugs trade, several of the group's leaders were arrested. Instead of finishing off the cartel, though, that led to the rise of a rival group, the Zetas. The subsequent turf war has claimed hundreds of victims.

It is also thought to have led to widespread corruption at the highest levels of the police and civil service, together with the murder of Rodolfo Torre Cantu, a popular candidate for state governorship, who was shot dead in his car in June in Mexico's worst political killing in 16 years. Mr Calderon told Mexicans this week to brace themselves for further killings. But he argued that the spate of deaths showed that his crackdown, which has involved replacing often-corrupt police forces with government soldiers in many regions, is slowly working.

"I do not rule out that there might be more bouts of the violence we are witnessing, and what is more, the victory we are seeking and will gain is unthinkable without more violence," he said. "But this is a process of self-destruction for the criminals."

Although most Mexicans support Mr Calderon for now, a growing minority believe that the drugs war will be impossible to win. Earlier this month, former president Vicente Fox, a staunch supporter of the US crackdown on drugs, said recent events had won him over to the cause of legalisation. "It does not mean drugs are good," he said. "But we have to see it as a strategy to weaken and break the economic system that allows cartels to earn huge profits."

To legalise or not to legalise: the drugs war in words

Mexican President Felipe Calderón, June 2010

"It is as though we have a neighbour next door who is the biggest addict in the world, with the added fact that everyone wants to sell drugs through our house... If we remain with our arms crossed, we will remain in the hands of organised crime, we will always live in fear, our children will not have a future, violence will increase and we'll lose our freedom."

Former Mexican President Vicente Fox August 2010

"We should consider legalising the production, sale and distribution of drugs... Radical prohibition strategies have never worked."

US President Barack Obama April 2009

"At a time when the Mexican government has so courageously taken on the drug cartels that have plagued both sides of the border, it is absolutely critical that the United States joins as a full partner in dealing with this issue... also on our side of the border, in dealing with the flow of guns and cash south."

Samuel Gonzalez, former anti-drugs prosecutor, August 2010

"In almost four years the government cannot claim any kind of victory and the debate is the result of the crisis of legitimacy in the strategy. But at least it is now being discussed and that has to be a good thing."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most