near the Mexican border.
Digging for victims who may have been executed by the powerful Juarez drug cartel, on four separate sites and up to 12 feet underground, was described as a "macabre and sad" task by Mexico's Prosecutor General, Jorge Madrazo.
More than 600 Mexican soldiers, 174 agents and 26 FBI forensic scientists from the United States are combing the area with dogs and ground radar for traces of some 200 people reported missing near Juarez in recent years. Many local residents were last seen in the custody of local policemen. Fearing reprisals by drug trafficking gangs, most Mexicans involved in the investigation wear hoods.
The road from the airport, running 10 miles south-west to the Rancho de la Campana, where most search efforts are concentrated, is clogged by relatives hoping to discover news about loved ones who vanished years ago, most commonly between 1994 and 1996. According to Francisco Molina, a former head of Mexican narcotics investigation work, the Juarez cartel took pride in eliminating its foes without trace. "Instead of killing his enemies, Amado Carillo would take them away to disappear. Out there, they are going to find it all," he said. Carillo, the late Juarez drug lord, flew cargo-loads of Colombian cocaine to the US until his death in 1997. His group is still the biggest Mexican drug mafia.
Mr Madrazo said at a press conference that the bodies of two missing American anti-narcotics agents were not expected to be found, although he did not rule out finding Mexican federal police who might have been murdered. After he stated previously that 22 Americans might be among the bodies expected to be found near Juarez, his statistics were disputed by Washington. The FBI could only name five Americans who went missing near this zone.
At least eight people with links to the grave sites have been apprehended, an FBI spokesman disclosed. The owner of one ranch where exhumations are under way is being detained in Mexico City.
The key player in the drama is a former Mexican policeman, under arrest in the United States, who said he could lead the FBI to hidden sites where the Juarez cartel dumped bodies after torture and execution. Agents said he confessed that he had been involved. When he passed a lie-detector test, inquiries began, and the joint operation started more than two months ago.
This contrasts with the handling of an ex-policeman caught three years ago. The Mexico City daily Reforma reported that interrogators in Texas released a Mexican policeman, and escorted him to a bridge across the Rio Grande, after he offered to bring a human head to prove he was an operative in the Juarez cartel. "I have killed over eighty," he had boasted. They dismissed him as mad.
Evidence compiled by a family association that has tallied more than 200 "disappeared" victims points to many cases where victims were arrested and killed by Mexican police officers or off-duty soldiers. In other incidents, the victims never reappeared after being detained for questioning by Mexican narcotics agents.