MEXICO CITY — The one known survivor of a massacre on a Mexico ranch 85 miles south of Brownsville trudged into a Navy checkpoint Monday -- a bullet wound in his neck -- with a tale almost too gruesome even for a country locked in the throes of a vicious and bloody drug war.
He and fellow migrants from Central and South America, he told authorities, were headed to the Texas border with the hope of making it into the United States. Instead, everyone had been shot dead, slaughtered by gangsters even as they pleaded for their lives.
Mexican Marines discovered the 72 bodies - 58 men and 14 women - on Tuesday afternoon after a skirmish with gangsters outside the town of San Fernando. The migrants were massacred by the ruthless Zetas gang, Mexican officials said Wednesday.
The survivor, an Ecuadorean, also was shot but managed to escape, said Adm. Jose Luis Vergara, a naval spokesman.
Mexican officials did not explain at a Wednesday press conference why it took so long to discover the bodies or release the information. Nor did they explain why there is still confusion about victims' identities, how they were killed or how long they have been dead.
"We still can't determine, much less give information on, the manner in which they exactly lost their lives," said Ricardo Najera, a spokesman for Mexico's attorney general.
All the victims appeared to be from Ecuador, Brazil, Honduras or El Salvador, officials said, though that information is based largely on the survivor's account.
"It's absolutely outrageous and demands the full condemnation of everyone in our society," said Alejandro Poire, the government's spokesman for security matters.
Confusion about details
Officials seemed uncertain if all the victims had been killed at the same time, exactly why they had been murdered, or if they had been found in a mass grave. Such graves have become common amid ongoing gang violence, with scores of bodies uncovered across northern and central Mexico in recent weeks.
But the witness, who apparently escaped with a gunshot wound to the neck, told prosecutors that he was with a group of 75 people being held at the ranch.
The only known survivor's statement seemed to indicate all the victims were killed together, as he told prosecutors he heard gunfire and pleas for mercy as he fled.
After being alerted, Marines manning a highway checkpoint nearby attacked the ranch with helicopter support. Three alleged mobsters and one Marine were killed in the shootout. The troops seized 21 rifles, 6,500 rounds of ammunition and several vehicles that had been disguised as belonging to police and the army.
Mexico's Gulf Coast is a heavily used corridor for migrants from the rest of Latin America and elsewhere hoping to cross illegally into the United States. Many poorer migrants hop trains from the Guatemalan border to the Rio Grande. Those with more money hire smugglers, paying $3,000 or more for the journey.
The Zetas and other criminal bands have become heavily involved in the human smuggling business. They often hold people hostage until they're paid sums far beyond the agreed-upon fee, migrant advocates say. Gangsters also kidnap even poorer migrants, hoping to collect ransom from relatives in the United States or back home.
"Some organizations are confronting a very difficult situation in maintaining themselves with resources," Poire said in explaining the gangsters' kidnapping and extortions of migrants.
Marines and soldiers have freed hundreds of migrants from gang safe houses in Reynosa, Matamoros and other cities in recent months.
A number of Mexican local, state and federal police officers have been arrested and accused of aiding in the migrant abductions.
"This discovery once again demonstrates the extreme danger and violence that Central Americans face on their treacherous journey north, as well as the Mexican government's abject failure to protect them," said a statement released by the human rights organization Amnesty International.
Explosion of violence
Gangland violence has exploded this year across northeastern Mexico - an area bordered by the Rio Grande and the cities of Monterrey and Tampico - as the Zetas have gone to war with former allies in the so-called Gulf Cartel and other bands.
At least 600 people have been killed in the fighting in recent months, according to some media tallies. An untold number have simply disappeared, sometimes turning up in mass graves.
Known for its bass fishing and dove hunting, the San Fernando area has long been popular with outdoors enthusiasts from Texas and other U.S. states. But a group of Houston dove hunters reported being assaulted and robbed in an area field last fall by heavily armed men.
The bodies of 15 presumed gang members also were dumped recently outside San Fernando, on the highway leading to the Texas border.
Newspapers in Matamoros and Ciudad Victoria, the cities nearest San Fernando, did not carry news of the migrants' massacre on their websites Wednesday. Reporters in the region say they have been scared into silence by threats from the Zetas and other criminal gangs.
WHEN YOU TALK OF ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS KNOW WHAT THEY ENDURE TO REACH THIS PLACE CALLED AMERICA. WOULD YOU DO THE SAME?