Gannett News Service
• But the probe’s handling shows Mexico doesn’t trust its local police, some say.
PAMELA HARTMAN Citizen Staff Writer
EL PASO, Texas – The handling of the investigation into reported mass graves near Ciudad Juàrez, reveals a deep mistrust in Mexico of its own police forces, border officials and experts said yesterday.
But it also demonstrates greater cooperation between Mexico and the United States, the officials said.
As of early today, six bodies had been unearthed – suspected victims of the notorious Juàrez Cartel – in a ranching area 10 miles southwest of Ciudad Juàrez, Chihuahua, and across the border from El Paso, Mexican authorities said.
”The remains have been located in a very specific area. The bodies have been found very close together, one atop another,” said Jose Larrieta Carrasco, head of the organized crime unit for Mexico’s attorney general’s office.
FBI forensic experts, working with Mexican soldiers and skimasked police, searched four desert ranches near the border, concentrating on two near Ciudad Juàrez, the home base for the Juàrez drug cartel, Mexico’s largest and most violent drugsmuggling outfit in the 1990s.
Larrieta added that widely published reports that Mexican authorities believed they’d find up to 100 bodies at the site, known as Rancho la Campana, were wrong.
”What I have said over the course of years here, we have been investigating the disappearance of many people here, and it could be as many as 100. We never said that we expect to find 100 bodies in this place,” he said.
While some Mexican officials suggested the FBI’s involvement in locating the graves had intruded into Mexico’s internal affairs, along the border the U.S. role had support.
”I believe it is a step forward,” said Efren Gutierrez, president of the opposition PRD party in Juàrez. ”I believe there should be modifications in (Mexico’s) constitution that allows cooperation between countries to fight this kind of crime.”
Mexico’s use of federal police forces from outside Ciudad Juàrez indicates Mexican officials were reluctant to trust local officials, said Peter H. Smith, director of Latin American studies at the University of California at San Diego.
”It does suggest by circumstantial evidence that there may be some concern about the will or capacity of local authorities to carry out this work,” Smith said.
But calling in the FBI in the Ciudad Juàrez case does not represent a sea change in U.S.Mexico relations, he said.
U.S. authorities have assisted in the past in investigating crossborder crimes. And with Americans likely among the dead, that provided a reason for the FBI to assume a role in this investigation, according to Smith.
”It’s a remarkable level of cooperation, but I also think it probably is limited in its implications,” he said.
”To me the big story is not so much the facts themselves, but how people interpret the facts. You could say that this shows Mexico is ungovernable and in a state of disarray.
”You could look at this and say the Mexican government is trying to take control of the situation. I think it really shows everything is pretty much the same as it was before.”
Jaime Hervella, director of the Association of Relatives and Friends of Disappeared Persons in El Paso, said he was thrilled at the work done by a special prosecutor appointed 13 months ago by Mexico’s attorney general to investigate the disappearances.
Hervella’s group documented nearly 200 disappearances between 1993 and 1997, people whom he said largely were affiliated with drug trafficking.
The prosecutor, Enrique Cocina Martinez, the fourth appointed to investigate the disappearances, hired a top-notch staff that worked diligently to uncover the crimes, Hervella said.
”Nobody has ever felt safe in the hands of Mexican policemen,” Hervella said. ”What I’m saying is, we do feel safe, because of the quality of these people, because of how professional they were. In a case like this, you may find 200 bodies, but you could also find that 200 people go to jail.”
PRD leader Gutierrez said Mexico allowed greater help from U.S. authorities in an effort to gain support from the United States so it would recertify Mexico in its fight against drug trafficking. If the annual certification were denied, Mexico could be cut off from certain types of aid.
U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said the question for certification is whether Mexico is cooperating in the fight against drugs.
”The issue in establishing the question of whether Mexico is cooperating is not the same as answering the question of whether Mexican officials may or may not have been involved in nefarious activities,” Rubin said.
”The question for certification is this: Are they cooperating? And is that cooperation real?” he said.
Of the multiple graves, Rubin said, ”This is a particularly brutal example of how the killings can destroy families and lives. Institutions are left in ruins. And the fact that these people would kill dozens of people and then leave their bodies in mass graves underlines the base and barbarous nature of these kinds of narcotics trafficking organizations.”
Though there was dismay in Juàrez at the revelation of the mass graves, it has not converted into a protest of the powerful drug trade by political parties or the citizenry, said University of Juàrez political scientist Hector Padilla.
That is because, Padilla said, the drug trade has infiltrated all socioeconomic levels of society in Juàrez.
”This speaks to a certain legitimacy of the drug trade,” he said. ”They don’t do anything (to protest) because so many people benefit from this activity. There’s an acceptance of this type of activity.”
As the count of the dead slowly mounted to six yesterday, officials urged caution before jumping to conclusions.
”There’s a kind of a feeding frenzy,” said U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas. ”I just wish everybody would kind of take a deep breath and relax and see what comes out of this investigation.”
Gannett News Service and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Sonora has potential for drug violence, too, authorities say
The Associated Press
Could numerous victims of a drug vendetta be found buried along the Arizona border, like those authorities have begun unearthing in Mexico, south of El Paso, Texas?
In 1989, a dozen tortured bodies were discovered in a 70-foot well four miles southeast of Agua Prieta, Mexico, in that city’s worst mass murder. Five others related to that case were found stabbed execution-style in Tucson.
American authorities suggest the potential exists for more of the same in Sonora, just like the remains being unearthed from graves south of Ciudad Juàrez in the state of Chihuahua – because of the drug trade’s inherent violence.
Roberto Rodriguez Hernandez, Mexican consul in Nogales, disputes that assessment. He said his office, and federal and state Mexican officials, have heard nothing to suggest that anything comparable to the apparent mass deaths might have happened or might occur in Sonora.
”Essentially, the cartels and the traffickers were working in certain specific areas like Ciudad Juàrez or Tijuana, and we do not have information about any cartels working the border in the ArizonaSonora region,” he said.
Nor have American officials given them any such indications, he said.
”We don’t have any specific information, but narcotics traffickers by character have a tendency for violence,” said James Woolley, special agent in charge for the Tucson office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. ”We know that’s an inherent trait of theirs.”
Woolley said he knew of no bodies surfacing recently nor of anything to suggest any narcotics turf war or retaliation in Sonora or Arizona.
Larry Seligman, police chief of the Tohono O’odham Tribe, said at one time at least three major drug families or organizations were active in northern Sonora, and a number of groups used the Arizona conduit for trafficking operations.
The tribe’s sprawling reservation hugs more than 50 miles of the Arizona border with Sonora in Pima County; Seligman formerly headed the county Sheriff’s Department’s criminal investigation division.
”There were some pretty serious bad guys working out of Sonora,” he said. ”Would they be up to this level of violence? Yeah, I think so.
”It’s a cutthroat industry. When you choose to enter that business, you don’t sue people, you kill them. It’s very violent.”
Jim Molesa, DEA spokesman in Phoenix, said there probably are five to eight major organizations working in northern Sonora.
He and Seligman said the organizations trafficking along the Arizona border typically are based 30 miles or more south, with ranches, safe houses and staging areas.
Ciudad Juàrez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, was once the undisputed territory of the Juarez Cartel, Mexico’s largest and most violent drug-smuggling outfit. A bloody war over its control erupted after the cartel’s founder, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, died in 1997.
Many alleged ringleaders have been arrested, and other trafficking organizations have eclipsed the Juarez cartel.
”What generally happens is you’ll have somebody like the remnants of the Carillo organization, who have pretty much divided up the country, and people in the Sonora area are pretty much like lieutenants,” Molesa said.
The deadly violence is rife along the border; 15 people were gunned down last year outside Tijuana when a local marijuana trafficker was caught free-lancing, he said.
Authorities attributed the 1989 Agua Prieta slayings – and the five in Tucson – to Hector ”Tombstone” Fragoso Burgueno, a marijuana and cocaine smuggler.
Nine men and three women who backpacked marijuana for Fragoso were tortured and killed near Agua Prieta, and five men were killed in Tucson, after he discovered they had kept a portion of cocaine hidden inside their marijuana packs, Molesa said.
The so-called ”mules” had discovered Fragoso had planted cocaine inside their packs without paying them the higher rate for carrying cocaine, Molesa said.
Fragoso eventually was caught in Arizona and was extradited to Mexico but apparently is not in prison, he said.
PHOTO: The Associated Press
FBI agents carry a body bag to a truck yesterday at the Rancho de la Campaña compound, where there is believed to be a mass grave full of victims of Mexican drug cartels.