Police and soldiers are preparing to exhume 100 to 300 bodies from two mass graves near the Mexican border city of Juarez believed to contain the remains of victims of a notorious drug cartel, law enforcement officials said Monday.
At least a dozen U.S. citizens are believed to have been among the victims, who have included former informants for the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI, said U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity.
If the graves do yield so many victims, they will be by far the most dramatic evidence yet of the heights to which the drug-trafficking violence that has ravaged cities and towns across Mexico in recent years has soared.
The grave sites, on two remote ranches south of Juarez across the U.S. border from El Paso, were brought to the attention of U.S. law enforcement officials just four days ago. Since then, an FBI task force of forensic experts who helped exhume mass graves in Bosnia-Herzegovina has been working with Mexican army officials to plan the recovery of the bodies.
The corpses are believed to be buried in ravines and trenches, some as deep as 12 feet, U.S. law enforcement officials said. More than 200 FBI forensic experts and several hundred Mexican soldiers armed with heavy digging equipment are to begin exhuming the bodies today, the officials said. Dozens of DEA agents are aiding the investigation.
One senior U.S. law enforcement official in Washington said investigators believe that the graves contain between 100 and 300 bodies.
“We have agents working with Mexican authorities on at least two sites near Juarez, exhuming sites in search of human remains,” FBI spokesman Jim Davis said. “It is possible that we could be talking U.S. citizens here.”
The Mexican attorney general’s office said the probe sought to solve “a series of killings and disappearances related to drug-trafficking, perpetrated against Mexicans and U.S. citizens, apparently by members of the so-called Juarez cartel.”
The office said Mexico had requested that the FBI assist with the “humanitarian action” to recover the remains of the victims, who are believed to have been killed during the past four years.
The Mexicans did not disclose when or how they learned of the graves.
Most of the victims are believed to have come from Juarez, base of the cartel that funnels billions of dollars’ worth of cocaine, marijuana and heroin into the United States each year. Many of the drugs are grown and processed in Colombia.
But Davis said that even by the standards of the drug trade, which has grown increasingly vicious as the levels of illicit drugs shipped to the U.S. and other countries have soared in recent years, killing on the scale officials believe the graves represent is “unprecedented.”
Other analysts agreed that the graves appear to underscore the explosion of violence in the drug wars.
“I can’t think, in the entire history of the illicit drug business, of anything comparable,” said Mark A. R. Kleiman, director of the Drug Policy Analysis Program at UCLA. “Yes, there’s certainly been violence in the illicit drug trade, and yes, if you add up the people who were killed by the [Colombian] Medellin drug cartel over the years, it would add up to more than 100. But a mass grave site? I’ve never seen anything like it.”
A Los Angeles Times investigation in 1998 into drug-related killings in Mexico found that hundreds of drug slayings--perhaps several thousand--had been occurring annually.
The worst single incident was the massacre of 19 adults and children last year near Ensenada, 60 miles south of San Diego. But the Times investigation found that narcotics-related killings were occurring in big cities and small towns throughout Mexico, often involving rival drug gangs but sometimes drawing in bystanders.
In addition, human rights groups have alleged that overzealous or corrupt law enforcement officials have been responsible for some of the disappearances in northern Mexico, especially in the Juarez area.
Some of the victims are believed to have been killed by Mexican law enforcement officials on the payroll of Mexican drug cartels, officials in Washington said.
Mexican Atty. Gen. Jorge Madrazo Cuellar appointed a special prosecutor, Francisco Hernandez, in 1997 to investigate such disappearances.
Jaime Hervella, president of the International Assn. of Relatives and Friends of Disappeared Persons, which is based jointly in El Paso and Juarez, told the Reuters news agency Monday that 196 people have disappeared in Juarez alone since 1990. He said 18 of them were American citizens.
The Juarez cartel has generated fierce violence since the death of its leader, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, “the Lord of the Skies,” in July 1997 while he was undergoing plastic surgery to change his appearance. An apparent struggle for control of the cartel has produced seemingly endless violence.
Mexican and U.S. officials have said the cartel split into three branches after Carrillo’s death: one based in Cancun in the southeast, another in the north led by Carrillo Fuentes’ brother, Vicente, and a third branch on the west coast under the command of Juan Jose Esparragosa, known as El Azul (The Blue One).
One of the northern branch leaders, Rafael Munoz Talavera, was assassinated in September 1998. Mexican authorities announced in September that they had arrested another of the cartel’s major figures in western Mexico, Juan Jose Quintero Payan, when he arrived at a house in Guadalajara for a tryst with his lover.
Mexico’s top drug prosecutor, Mariano Herran Salvatti, said at the time that the western cell of the cartel was left “headless” thanks to the arrest.
The Juarez drug gang and the Tijuana cartel are the most infamous of Mexico’s seven known organized drug-smuggling cartels.
Mexican officials reported last December that they had issued more than 100 arrest warrants for leaders of the Juarez cartel. The most prominent arrest was that of army Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo in February 1997. Gutierrez Rebollo was then head of the anti-drug police.
But the drug turf war has also engulfed ordinary citizens, especially in Juarez.
In February 1998, then-Mayor Enrique Flores pleaded for federal help, complaining in an open letter to President Ernesto Zedillo that “Juarez has become a battleground for drug-trafficking groups that are fighting to control this area.”
Schrader reported from Washington and Smith from Mexico City.