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Mystery of missing 20 in Mexico may be solved

It was the dead men who did the talking.

And with their video-recorded confession, the mystery may have been solved of what happened to 20 men who disappeared after going on vacation in Acapulco and being hauled away by gunmen.

Under heavy military guard, forensic specialists have extracted 18 bodies from a mass grave in a coconut grove south of Acapulco after the video popped up on YouTube. In the grainy video, two beaten, bruised men confess to killing the group of 20 and reveal where they are buried.

On Thursday, investigators expanded the search area to about 2.5 acres and brought in sniffer dogs to look for more bodies.

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Alerted separately by an anonymous telephone tip, police found two corpses Tuesday believed to be those of the men who appear in the video. A note attached to their bodies attributed the slayings to one of the drug-trafficking gangs working in the area, and again pinpointed the burial site of the other victims. The 6-by-12-foot clandestine grave was found alongside the two dead men, and digging began Wednesday.

Relatives of the missing 20, from the western state of Michoacan, will travel to the Acapulco area in neighboring Guerrero state to attempt to identify the bodies, most found with their hands bound, said David Sotelo, the Guerrero state prosecutor. He said DNA samples would be taken in case visual identifications or the use of dental records proved inconclusive.

“We do not yet know definitively that it is them [the 20], nor that it is not them,” Sotelo said in a telephone interview. “The bodies are all of the masculine sex, and they lost their lives in a violent way.”

If the IDs are confirmed, the episode will represent another ugly twist in a conflict increasingly characterized by mass executions, torture and thousands of kidnappings and unexplained disappearances.

Authorities had been searching fruitlessly for the 20 men after they vanished Sept. 30 shortly after arriving in Acapulco. Two additional members of the group who had separated from the rest and evaded capture told authorities that gunmen in several SUVs seized the men and sped away.

Their relatives said they were all auto mechanics, students and other workaday family men from the Michoacan capital, Morelia, who had saved up money to take a vacation in the coastal resort.

Federal authorities initially cast aspersions on the account, questioning why a group of men would travel together on holiday and claiming that they had no hotel reservations. But relatives produced evidence of reservations, and Guerrero investigators said they had verified the families’ stories and found no criminal records for any of the missing men, ages 17 to 58.

The case endured as one of the more puzzling in Mexico’s raging drug war, which has claimed about 30,000 lives in nearly four years.

With the video and the messages left on the bodies, some of the pieces may begin to fall into place.

The men confessing in the video said they were following instructions from a faction associated with the Beltran-Leyva cartel that last year made significant inroads in Guerrero and was battling the Michoacan-based La Familia mafia.

Sitting on a staircase, their hands apparently tied behind their backs and their faces swollen and welted, the men told an off-camera interrogator that they were supposed to take the 20 to Cuernavaca, a Beltran-Leyva stronghold south of Mexico City, but couldn’t because of military deployments in the region. So they killed them instead.

The pair said the capture was ordered in retaliation for successful efforts by La Familia to seize control of the drug trade in Altamirano, a Guerrero city that strategically borders Michoacan and would open the path for La Familia to move deeper into Guerrero.

Investigators had speculated that the 20 men from Michoacan were mistaken for La Familia henchmen when they arrived in Acapulco.

Though it remains unclear, the two men in the video may have been captured by the rival La Familia and executed; one of the signs left on the bodies reportedly says they were being punished for “killing innocents.”

Anguished families of the 20, meanwhile, have been attempting to keep authorities focused on the case. Hundreds of relatives and friends marched Sunday in Morelia with banners saying, “Don’t stop looking for the tourists” and “Bring my dad home.”

wilkinson@latimes.com


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