Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Mexican authorities search ranch for human remains

Tracey Eaton:

Mexican authorities on Thursday were investigating a ranch where a kidnapping suspect said hostages were killed before their bodies were shoved into barrels, doused with diesel fuel and burned.

Workers using heavy equipment were digging up the property, located about a half-hour's drive southwest of Nuevo Laredo, in search of human remains and other evidence.

The discovery of the ranch, where authorities said bones and human hair were found along with shreds of duct tape, came just days after federal agents rescued 44 hostages held at two Nuevo Laredo safe houses. A kidnapping suspect arrested at one of the houses on Sunday told authorities about gruesome killings that took place at the ranch.

Together, the cases opened a window into Mexico's flourishing kidnapping trade, which claims as many as 3,000 victims every year, second only to Colombia.

The three kidnap suspects arrested when the 44 hostages were rescued told federal authorities that municipal police in Nuevo Laredo were paid at least $300 for each victim they picked up and delivered, said a senior Mexican intelligence official.

An American citizen wanted on drug charges in the United States was among the people rescued, according to a Laredo, Texas, police investigator who requested anonymity. Mexican authorities said the unidentified man was a marijuana smuggler.

Gulf cartel members had captured many of the hostages because they were members of the rival Juarez cartel, the Mexican intelligence official said.

Other hostages apparently were victims of more typical kidnappings for ransom, the Laredo police source said.

Mexican federal authorities are holding 39 of the hostages in Mexico City, where they are being investigated for criminal ties. Five minors were released because they were not suspected of any crimes.

As of Thursday afternoon, authorities had released little information on the ranch discovered near Nuevo Laredo.

A reporter for Mexico's Azteca Television went into the ranch as it was raided and later held up bone fragments and shreds of duct tape in front of the camera.

The newspaper La Cronica reported that the ranch was operated by a group called The Black Command and that its leader, known as "El Comandante," ordered one of his followers to strangle an unidentified 17-year-old hostage and then himself stabbed the victim in the heart. It was not clear when the killing center was in operation.

U.S. authorities suspect that many Nuevo Laredo kidnappings are carried out by the Zetas, a group of specially trained former soldiers who work as enforcers for the Gulf drug cartel.

"They target anyone with money. It can be a small-business owner or a wealthy person. It doesn't matter to them," said a U.S. federal investigator and expert on the Zetas.

The Gulf cartel uses the kidnapping proceeds to help pay its expenses, which include bribes, smugglers' fees and other costs, the investigator said on condition of anonymity. The cartel's monthly bills are at least $750,000, the investigator said.

The hostages found Sunday were held in two safe houses tucked away in middle-class neighborhoods.

Mexican authorities contend that virtually all the victims have links to the drug trade. Besides the gang members held by rivals, others were kidnapped by their own gangs because they owed money or favors or were suspected of betrayal, authorities said.

Victims' relatives disputed that, saying their loved ones include a used-car salesman, a woman who had gone out shopping for the day, a carpenter, teenage students and other unfortunate souls who have nothing to do with drugs.

"Anyone here is a potential victim," said Leobardo Garcia, 19, a factory worker who lives near one of the safe houses raided Sunday. "You never know who your enemies or friends are."

Human rights activists documented 129 kidnappings in Nuevo Laredo and surrounding Tamaulipas state from Jan. 1 through late May.

"Kidnapping is big business in Mexico and it's getting bigger," said Trent Kimball, president of Texas Armoring Corp., which sells armored vehicles to executives in Mexico. "Usually the police are involved in the crimes and victims have nowhere to turn."

Drug-related kidnappings are particularly brutal, and kidnappers often torture their hostages, cutting off ears and fingers, said Raul Salinas, a former FBI agent who has assisted Mexican authorities in resolving at least 15 kidnappings

"You're talking about ruthless individuals who would kill their own mom," Salinas said. "These are sick people."

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