Mass graves of more than 100 victims of drug cartel found near Mexican border

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TWO MASS graves believed to hold as many as 100 victims of drug- related murders are being exhumed in Mexico near the American border by the FBI and the Mexican prosecutor general's office. Twenty-two of the dead are thought to be Americans.

About 500 Mexican soldiers, wearing black hoods over their faces, have been keeping the burial sites secure since Monday night while special agents dug up a ranch owned by Jorge Ortiz of El Paso, Texas. He is the son of the late Cuauhtemoc Ortiz, a Mexican federal security chief who was executed near the property in 1996. Another site nearby has also been cordoned off.

Although several duffel bags were taken out through the wrought-iron front gates of the Ortiz ranch yesterday, officials would not confirm whether remains had been found. Unofficial sources told the Mexican newspaper La Jornada that US officials searching for two missing anti-narcotics agents had spotted the grave sites from the air. Jorge Madrazo, the prosecutor general, said yesterday: "More than 100 people could be buried in those points."

President Bill Clinton condemned the killings as a horrible example of the excesses of Mexico's drug cartels. "I think it reinforces the imperative of our trying not only to protect our border but to work with the Mexican authorities to try to combat these,'' he said. "We had a lot of success a few years ago in taking down a number of the Colombian drug cartels, and one of the adverse consequences was that a lot of the operations were moved north into Mexico. There are organised criminal operations there and they are particularly vicious.''

Law officers, including investigators from the US Drug Enforcement Agency, believe they have found a repository for the bodies of suspected informers killed by the notorious Juarez cartel on both sides of the violent frontier between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. In the last four years, scores of witnesses in drug cases have vanished. Family pressure groups, fearing that many were victims of assassins hired by the drug gangs, have campaigned for a full investigation.

Mr Madrazo, a former human-rights ombudsman, stepped up the search last January after the number of unsolved disappearances in the badlands surrounding Juarez reached 202, all but one of them male. He has been hindered by the alleged complicity of low-paid local police tempted by the substantial bribes on offer from drug traffickers.

Digging began after a tip-off from a former Mexican police officer, who implicated himself in some of the burials and provided precise directions to grave-sites on the outskirts of Juarez. FBI agents told The New York Times that he passed a lie-detector test. The informant said people known to have passed information to American narcotics agents were murdered and dumped in the secret graves.

Al Cruz, an FBI spokesman in El Paso, said that the Mexican authorities requested aid from the US agency several months ago. Twenty-five agents are on stand-by in Texas, where all forensic clues will be processed in a state-of-the-art laboratory. A further 20 FBI investigators are on site south of the border with what appears to be a mobile laboratory. With over 200 officers involved, it is the biggest such operation since an FBI task force examined mass graves in Kosovo, although Mr Cruz points out that officially the agency is merely assisting a foreign government.

The project was kept secret from local police forces in Juarez and Chihuahua state, which discovered what was happening when neighbours of the picket- fenced ranch awoke to army convoys and helicopters on Monday morning.

One of the most violent cities in Latin America, Juarez has seen its murder rate shoot up since the death in 1997 of Amado Carillo Fuentes, the "Lord of the Skies", which started a struggle for control of his cocaine distribution empire. The drug lord, who was having cosmetic surgery to disguise his identity, died in a secret operating theatre. The body of the unfortunate doctor who botched the job was found on a deserted roadside, stuffed into a tar barrel.

In 1997, hit-men gunned down more than a dozen local businessmen in Juarez restaurants, using AK-47 rifles as the weapon of choice. Since then, increasing numbers of people have mysteriously disappeared near the sleazy border town, often after being arrested by local police. Despite substantial rewards offered for the capture of the cartel leaders, investigators have met with silence.

Amnesty International and other human-rights groups have sounded the alarm for years about the frequent abductions and disappearances along the US-Mexico border. The suspected mass graves tell only half of the macabre story of recent murders in Juarez. Since 1993, there have been over 180 murders attributed to serial killers who target young female workers as they leave the town's 350 assembly plants. The former FBI profiler Robert K Ressler, the real-life model for Hannibal Lecter's nemesis in the film Silence of the Lambs, suggested earlier this year that mass murderers from America might be crossing the Rio Grande for recreational killing sprees in the desert scrub outside Juarez.

Day-tripping psychopaths could traverse the border repeatedly without showing a passport. Mr Ressler concluded, after visiting the town twice to investigate killings: "Juarez is a serial killer's dream because it reels so many young women into its factories. Outsiders can easily distance themselves from their victims."

Feminist groups have painted pink crosses in Juarez to mark the deaths of the young women, which have gone almost un-noticed amid the warfare between drug gangs. A few families have been given a sack of bleached bones to grieve over, but most have to cope with the sudden and unexplained disappearance of their loved ones. Many such families object to the government's latest assertion that most of the missing people had links to the narcotics trade.