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Massacre Victims in Mexico Likely Migrants to US

SAN FERNANDO, Mexico – Seventy-two people found murdered on a ranch in northeast Mexico are believed to have been migrants bound for the United States, officials said, in one of the most horrific examples of Mexican violence in years.

Marines discovered the bodies of 58 men and 14 women after a clash with a suspected drug cartel in Tamaulipas state, which borders the US state of Texas.

A marine and three gunmen were also killed in the clash, the military said Wednesday.

An injured Ecuadoran man claiming to be the sole survivor of the massacre and who alerted the military to the killings has been placed under federal protection, a navy source told AFP, requesting anonymity.

The man told police the group had been kidnapped and killed by members of an armed gang heavily involved in the drug trade and organized crime, and known for extorting migrants.

"Preliminary unconfirmed reports suggest (the victims) could have been immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras, Ecuador and Brazil," Alejandro Poire, a Mexican security official, told a news conference.

At least four Brazilians were among the dead, a Brazilian foreign ministry official said.

Diplomats whose nationals could be among the victims were traveling to the scene and expected to arrive on Thursday.

If the victims turn out to be undocumented migrants, the case "will turn into an emblem of the capacity or incapacity of Mexican officials to face up" to migrant abuses, said Alberto Herrera, director of Amnesty International Mexico.

"The level of impunity in this country is scandalous," he added.

Around half a million clandestine migrants cross Mexico each year, mostly from Central America, according to Mexico's Human Rights Commission.

Some 10,000 undocumented migrants were abducted in Mexico over six months from September 2008 to February 2009, the commission reported last year.

According to a navy spokesman, the Ecuadoran survivor accused the Zetas drug gang -- who are often blamed for migrant killings and abductions -- of committing the massacre.

A Quito newspaper identified the survivor as an 18-year-old farmer who paid human traffickers known as "coyotes" to smuggle him across Mexico's northern border into the United States.

He said the gunmen offered to pay the migrants 2000 dollars a month to work as hitmen for them, and began shooting them when they refused, according to a spokesman for the state prosecutor's office, who declined to be named.

Tamaulipas has recently seen scores of brutal clashes between the Gulf drug cartel and its former allies, the Zetas, over control of trafficking routes into the United States.

The Zetas are comprised of Mexican military deserters and corrupt former police officers. The US government has called them the most dangerous organized crime syndicate in Mexico.

Identified simply as "Freddy," the Ecuadoran led security forces to the ranch near San Fernando after pleading for help at a roadside checkpoint, officials said.

Marines said they took fire as they approached the ranch with ground and air support.

They captured one "underage suspect," but the rest of the surviving gunmen escaped.

The massacre brought condemnation across the Americas, including from Washington, where the State Department deplored the "horribly tragic" killings.

Ecuador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino called the crimes "very serious and regrettable" after meeting in Quito with his Mexican counterpart Patricia Espinosa, who blasted the "cowardly" killers and said Mexicans stood in mourning alongside fellow Latin Americans.

The grisly discovery was the latest mass dumping of bodies in recent months, which authorities blame on drug gangs as the death toll spirals in Mexico's drug wars.

In June, 55 bodies were removed from an abandoned mine near Taxco in the southern state of Guerrero.

In July, investigators found 51 corpses in a residential area on the outskirts of Monterrey, capital of the northern state of Nuevo Leon.

More than 28,000 people have died since 2006, when President Felipe Calderon began deploying some 50,000 troops to tackle organized crime.

The victims of the latest killings will be kept in San Fernando for forensic examinations, local officials said.

Last week Calderon accused the US government of failing to tackle drug addiction in the United States and neglecting to rein in the arms industry -- the main supplier of weapons to Mexico's drug gangs.

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