MEXICO CITY — A wounded migrant stumbled into a military checkpoint and led marines to a gruesome scene, what may be the biggest massacre so far in Mexico's bloody drug war: a room strewn with 72 bodies, some piled on top of each other, just 100 miles from their goal, the U.S. border.
The 58 men and 14 women were killed by the Zetas gang, the migrant told investigators Wednesday. The gang, started by former Mexican army special forces soldiers, is known to extort money from migrants who pass through its territory but a firm motive for the killings was not clear Wednesday.
It also was unclear if the victims, from Central and South America, were shot all at once.
If authorities corroborate the story, it would be the most horrifying example yet of the plight of migrants trying to cross a country where drug cartels are increasingly scouting shelters and highways, hoping to extort cash or even recruit vulnerable immigrants.
"It's absolutely terrible and it demands the condemnation of all of our society," said government security spokesman Alejandro Poire.
The Ecuadorean migrant staggered to the checkpoint on Tuesday, with a bullet wound in his neck. He told the marines he had just escaped from gunmen at a ranch in San Fernando, a town in the northern state of Tamaulipas about 100 miles from Brownsville, Texas.
The Zetas so brutally control some parts of Tamaulipas that even many Mexicans do not dare to travel on the highways in the state. Many residents in the state tell of loved ones or friends who have disappeared traveling from one town to the next. Many of these kidnappings are never reported for fear that police are in league with the criminals.
The marines scrambled helicopters to raid the ranch, drawing gunfire from gunmen. One marine and three gunmen died in a gunbattle.
The migrant told authorities that his captors identified themselves as Zetas, and that the migrants were from Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador and Honduras.
Poire said the government was in contact with those countries to corroborate the identities of the migrants.
The marines seized 21 assault rifles, shotguns and rifles, and detained a minor, apparently part of the gang.
The government has confirmed at least seven cases of cartels kidnapping groups of migrants so far this year, said Antonio Diaz, an official with the National Migration Institute, a think tank that studies immigration.
But other groups say migrant kidnappings are much more rampant. In its most recent study, the National Human Rights Commission said some 1,600 migrants are kidnapped in Mexico each month. It based its figures on the number of reports it received between September 2008 and February 2009.