SAN FERNANDO, Mexico — Working under heavy security in a region controlled by a brutal drug gang, authorities and diplomats began the gruesome task Thursday of identifying 72 Central and South American migrants killed just 100 miles from their destination — the U.S. border.
The government's chief security spokesman said it appeared the migrants were slain after refusing to help the gang smuggle drugs.
"The information that we have at this moment is that it was an attempt at forced recruitment. That is to say, it wasn't a kidnapping with the intent to get money, but the intention was of holding these people, forcing them to participate in organized crime — with the terrible outcome that we know," Alejandro Poire said in an interview with W radio.
Marines guarded the pink, one-story funeral home where the bodies were taken after being discovered on a ranch Tuesday, bound, blindfolded and slumped against a wall.
A funeral home employee, who like most people in San Fernando was too frightened to give his name, said the dead were stored in a refrigerated truck in the parking lot, where flies buzzed over white powder spread over bloodstains.
The victims of what could be Mexico's biggest drug-gang massacre were trying to reach Texas, traversing some of Mexico's most dangerous territory. The lone survivor said the assassins identified themselves as Zetas, a drug gang that dominates parts of the northern state of Tamaulipas.
"This is frightening. It's horrible," said a tortilla stand worker in San Fernando, a crumbling colonial town of about 30,000 people on Mexico's east coast.
"It smells like death. I vomited," his friend added.
Tamaulipas state Assistant Attorney General Jesus de la Garza told the Milenio television network that 15 bodies had been identified. De la Garza said eight were from Honduras, four from El Salvador, two from Guatemala and one from Brazil.
Diplomats from Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador and Honduras arrived or were en route to help identify the bodies.
"We have firmly asked the Mexican authorities to conduct an exhaustive investigation to find those responsible for this abominable event," Salvadoran Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez said.
Mexico's National Human Rights Commission sent investigators to monitor the identification process.
Marines discovered the horrific massacre after the survivor, 18-year-old Luis Freddy Lala Pomavilla of Ecuador, staggered wounded to a military checkpoint.
His family told Ecuador television Thursday that Lala left his remote town in the Andes mountains two months ago in the hopes of reaching the U.S.
"I told him not to go but he went," one of his brothers, Luis Alfredo Lala told Ecuavisa television from Lala's home town.
Lala's parents already live in the United States and send money home to the family, and Lala had been the primary caretaker for his eight siblings and his grandmother, according to a cousin, Maria Ignacia Gualga.
Lala, who was recovering from a gunshot to the neck at a Mexican hospital, has a 17-year-old pregnant wife in Ecuador, Maria Angelica Lala. She told Teleamazonas that her husband had paid $15,000 for the smuggler who was supposed to guide him to the United States.
That smuggler apparently tried to hide Lala's fate from his family, calling Wednesday to tell her that Lala had safely reached Los Angeles. It was the day after Mexican marines acting on Lala's tip had raided the ranch and found the slain migrants, 14 of them women.
Drug gangs in Mexico often force human smugglers to abandon their migrants.
If confirmed as a cartel kidnapping, it would be the most extreme case seen so far and the bloodiest massacre since President Felipe Calderon began a crackdown on drug gangs in late 2006. More than 28,000 people have died in drug-related violence since then.
Calderon condemned the massacre as the work of desperate cartels.
They "are resorting to extortion and kidnappings of migrants for their financing and also for recruitment because they are having a hard time obtaining resources and people," he said in a statement Wednesday night.
But advocates blamed Mexico's indifference to migrants' exploitation for the escalation of such heinous crimes.
"We disagree with the government that is a consequence of battles between criminal groups," said the Rev. Pedro Pantoja, director of the Casa del Migrante in Saltillo in neighboring Coahuila state. "The permissiveness and complicity of the Mexican state with criminals ... is just as much to blame."
The national rights commission estimates nearly 20,000 migrants are kidnapped each year based on the number of reports it received between September 2008 and February 2009 — numbers the federal government has disputed.
Commission President Raul Plascencia said Thursday the government never responded to its recommendations or demands for greater security for migrants.
"This escalation of the violence ... demands results from the government in finding who is responsible," he said.
In an April report, Amnesty International called the plight of tens of thousands of mainly Central American migrants crossing Mexico for the U.S. a major human rights crisis.
The report said that although the Mexican government has made some small improvements, it continues to give the issue low priority, despite the widespread involvement of corrupt police.
Kidnappings and attacks on government security patrols are rampant in the highways surrounding San Fernando, where armed men claiming to belong to the Zetas roam freely and the police station is pockmarked with bullet holes from a March shooting. Last month, the bodies of 15 people were dumped in the middle of the highway from San Fernando to Matamoros, a city across the border from Brownsville, Texas.
The region is at the end of a traditional migration route for Central and South Americans who travel up Mexico's Gulf coast toward the U.S. border. Violence has soared there this year since the Zetas broke with their former employer, the Gulf cartel, sparking a vicious turf war.
Migrants have long faced extortion, violence and theft. But reports have grown of those forced to give telephone numbers of relatives in the United States or back home who are then extorted for ransom.
But migrants and immigration activists say they had never heard of an atrocity on the scale of the San Fernando massacre.
Almost 20 migrants staying at the Casa del Migrante shelter outside Mexico City turned back to their countries after hearing of the killings this week, said shelter worker Hector Lopez, a Nicaraguan who abandoned his own journey three months ago.
"I wanted to go reach the United States but when I saw what the situation was, what was happening to other migrants, I realized things could get worse for me," he said.
But others refused to turn back, even as they were stunned by news of the slaughter.
"We run from the military, the authorities, the police and now the criminals, the Zetas. We are just poor people, we're just passing through. Why do they have to do this to us?" said Wilber Cuellar, a migrant from Belize who was staying at the shelter.
Cuellar, 35, who said he has been deported six times from the United States and once from Canada, where he had worked at a chicken packing plant, vowed he would not be deterred.
"I'm not afraid. I'm prepared to die," he said. "I'm tired of suffering in this world."
Associated Press writers Alexandra Olson, Isaac Garrido and Katherine Corcoran in Mexico City and Gonzalo Solano in Ecuador, Diego Mendez in El Salvador and Freddy Cuevas in Honduras contributed to this report.