EL SAUZAL, Mexico – As the fog drifted in, the slap of wet cement and the clunk of stones filtered from the seaside cemetery where workmen repaired a gap in the old stone wall.
Three years had passed since the wall was knocked down so a bulldozer could enter to dig a plot big enough for all the bodies. Seven were buried together that day — 19 people were killed in all — in what officials say was a gruesome message from the Arellano Felix brothers.
The surviving villagers were so stunned that they put off repairs at the cemetery. "It just broke our hearts to go up there," said Ana Maria Tovar, who lost nine relatives. "It hurt too much. Nobody wanted to go."
Now a tranquil fishing village, El Sauzal is believed to have suffered the wrath of Mexico's most violent drug gang under Ramon Arellano Felix. Allegedly the top enforcer of what is sometimes known as the Tijuana Cartel, Ramon Arellano Felix raised the savagery of Mexico's drug violence to another level, using unmeasured violence to ensure the dominance of his family's business.
Mexican and U.S. officials believe they have finally broken the organization.
Mexican prosecutors said Wednesday that DNA testing confirmed a man killed Feb. 10 in a shootout with Mexican police in the Pacific coast city of Mazatlan was Ramon Arellano Felix, one of the FBI's 10 most-wanted fugitives. His brother Benjamin, considered the overall leader of the gang, was arrested Saturday.
A 1999 Drug Enforcement Administration report said about 300 murders in Mexico and the United States had been attributed to the Arellano Felix gang. The massacre in El Sauzal, 60 miles south of the U.S. border near Ensenada, was considered the gang's most savage display of violence before the cartel quieted because it was drawing too much attention.
On Sept. 17, 1998, gunmen raided El Sauzal, rousting men, women and children from their sleep after a festive night of Independence Day celebrations. Some wearing T-shirts and shorts, others in pajamas, nine children and 11 adults — including a pregnant woman — were packed tightly along a wall and riddled with bullets.
A 15-year-old girl hidden nearby listened to the shooting, waiting for the killers to come for her next. She and a 12-year-old boy — who played dead under the pile of bodies — were the only survivors.
Among the dead was Fermin Castro, a man described by officials as a minor-league drug smuggler who paid more powerful traffickers for the right to move air shipments of marijuana.
Gen. Guillermo Alvarez, who was in charge of anti-drug operations for Mexico's Federal Judicial Police at the time, said the four suspected gunmen arrested after the attack had connections to Ramon Arellano Felix, who allegedly controlled all significant movements of drugs through Baja California.
Alvarez and federal prosecutors said Castro was killed to stop his marijuana-smuggling operation from becoming too competitive.
"These people were vicious, cold-blooded killers, particularly Ramon and the people he surrounded himself with," said Dan Thornhill Jr., a DEA agent who followed the gang for nearly two decades. "They wouldn't think twice about killing children."
The Rev. Laurence Joy went to the sprawling ranch compound after the massacre, hoping to pray over the bodies. But soldiers refused to let him in before they were taken away. He said he will never forget the amount of blood covering the patio. The pool drying in the sun was an inch thick in some places.
"The idea that people were brought to the same spot and methodically killed, that type of cruelty was something I had no experience with. It was shocking to me," he said.
The caskets filled Joy's humble church.
"We had to be innovative with the cement blocks to position the caskets nicely in front of the altar. There were children and adults. It was too much," said the Irish Catholic priest, shaking his head and then continuing: "Too much sadness, too much grief, too much anger, too much frustration. It was a case of surviving the day."
Many of the victims' families are still surviving the pain day by day.
Ana Maria Tovar, who lives down the hill from the cemetery, buried nine of her family members, including her niece who was eight months pregnant. Tovar recently asked workers to build a small fence and plant a garden around the giant burial plot.
"I hope what comes around, goes around, but we are still left with the horror, the anger," she said. "I still can't watch the news about it. I still don't understand it."
Jose Torres, 72, said it's best not to try to sort out the reasons for the carnage. Torres lives next door to the compound but was off working in California when the massacre occurred. He saw the tragedy on the news and came home to find his two nieces among the dead.
"Only the killers know what really happened," he said. "But you don't mess with those things. What for? It won't bring them back."