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Border & Immigration

Mass Graves Found Near Brownsville, TX

Mass Graves Found Near Brownsville, TX
Mass graves with dozens of bodies -- probable victims of drug cartel violence -- have been discovered near Brownsville, Texas, prompting travel warnings from the State Department.


There have been shocking reports out of Mexico this week of mass graves discovered in Tamaulipas state, just south of the border with Texas. Apparently gunmen stopped buses headed north towards the U.S. border, seized passengers and killed them. This comes some months after news reports of beheadings and slayings in Tijuana seemed to have stopped.



Bob Kittle, director of news planning and content, KUSI

Andrew Donohue, editor of

Alisa Barba, assignment editor, Fronteras project, NPR

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: There have been shocking reports out of Mexico this week of mass graves discovered in Tamaulipas state just south of the boarder with Texas. Apparently gunmen stopped buses headed north toward the U.S. boarder, seized passengers, and killed them. This comes some months after news reports of beheadings and slayings in Tijuana seem to have stopped or at least slowed. So Alisa, put us in the picture. What's the latest with this?

BARBA: It's a horrible picture, it's a gruesome picture. Essentially in the state of Tamaulpias which is in northern Mexico right at the very tip of Texas where it meets Mexico. There's a town called Matamoros, about 80 miles south of Matamoros is a farming town called San Fernando, and in August, graves were discovered of some 72 migrants from central America who was supposedly on their way north, and the reports say that they were seized by gunmen, and I think the -- the idea was that they were forced to try to pay a bribe or work for the cartels, and they refused, and they were executed. So 72 people. And in the last about ten days, there have been scattered reports of people being taken off buses, people disappearing, and in the course of an investigation I think authorities in Mexico had one of the suspects confused and brought them to another site in this area, where over the course of the last week, they've uncovered up to a hundred and 45 bodies in various states of decompensation, which is to say that this has been going on for a while. Most of them, it appears that they were executed. And most of them are, we believe at this point to be Mexican nationals of randomly, as you said, we don't really know. Because right now, there are a lot of reporters in Matamoros, which is along the borders, but nobody is going south to San Fernando where this is happening. Because the reports are that the roads are just absolutely unsafe. So a lot of strange information out there, but essentially Mexican nationals executed and buried in mass graves over the last 6 to 8 months.


ST. JOHN: We heard a report from Fronteras reporter Herman Rosenberg this morning saying that the deaths, the mass graves that have thought been discovered now are unrelated to the 72 deaths last year.

BARBA: I would say that they are related in that the people who carried out the executions and the murders were, if not the same people, part of the same group. The authorities believe this should part of a drug cartel called Los Zetas, who operate in Tamaulipas basically with impunity. They used to be affiliated with the gulf cartel, which is another huge drug cartel south of the border. They broke with them about a year ago, and they apparently are, you know, running wild in this estate of Tamaulipas, and basically it seems like the people who live in these villages around here are living in a state of absolute fear, that the gunmen basically control the country side, they control the bus routes, they control the highways. And apparently, you know, nobody has really reports this much, but the eyewitness accounts are absolutely terrifying that the buses will go through these rural areas, stopped by remembered men, young men and young men are forced off of the busing, horrible things sometimes happen to them on the side of the buses, those are the respects, and then they're put into cars and taken away, and never seen again. And this has been going on for a while. But nobody is really talking about it, because of the fear of the people who really run this area, which is this group, Los Zetas.

ST. JOHN: And center any speculation about what the motive is for this?

BARBA: Yeah there's a lot of speculation. There's a lot of speculation these people are robbed, robbed and then killed.

ST. JOHN: Bow do they have much money on them?

BARBA: I have no idea. Probably not.

ST. JOHN: These are migrants coming --

BARBA: These are not necessarily migrants, these are just local people. Local people who happen to be on the buses. They may be trying to recruit them into the drug cartels to work for them as lower echelon people. They may be kidnapping them for ransom, though there is not any reports of families being approached for any kind of ransom number. So those are the kinds of things that we're hoping to learn. There have been a number of people arrested, I think 17 cartel members were arrested last week, and just yesterday they arrested 16 municipal policemen in the town of San Fernando who apparently or Mexican authorities say were working in collusion with the cartel.

ST. JOHN: Are and who did the arrests?

BARBA: The Mexican authorities.

ST. JOHN: Okay. This is from the federal, Mexico City --

BARBA: Yeah, so they want to make a big show that oh, we're cracking down, and we're doing something about this. But the bottom line is yoke there's any way that you can look at this part of Mexico and not see it as an absolute failed state being under the control of gunmen, essentially.

ST. JOHN: Andrew?

DONAHUE: Yeah, there's an entire chain of violence and robbery that happens on the way up from central America to the U.S. border. These people may not be rich, but they're carrying probably almost everything they have. They're carrying cash because they have to be paying it to various people to transport them from place to place. So they are a vulnerable, voiceless people that are being preyed upon from the trains to the buses to everything. And I think Alisa hit the nail on the head, and this is sort of a problem you deal with across the spectrum in Latin America, and that's impunity. The institutions aren't strong there. And people know they can get away with all sorts of crimes from everything from political corruption to this sort of very low level organized crime without, you know, with little recourse.

BARBA: But let's not forget as well that up until recently there's been kind of a line drawn, that it was understood that the gulf cartels or the cartels in general could and did and would prey upon Mexican citizens at will. You know, whether they had a relationship to the drug trade or not. That you were vulnerable. But Americans, especially American law enforcement was immune. They were not on the other side. But remember that the ice agent who was killed recently in the neighboring state of [CHECK AUDIO] by this very group. So basically they stopped his car, clearly diplomatic plates, clearly U.S. law enforcement, they stuck an AK 47 in his face and shot him dead [CHECK AUDIO].

ST. JOHN: If you got any questions for Alisa or comments to join the editors at the round table. 1-888-895-5727. So Alisa, is there any connection between what's happening there, and what we've heard about for so long in Ciudad Juarez where a lot of people have also been murdered recently?

BARBA: You know, I do not know exactly you know, who's fighting whom in Ciudad Juarez. I don't know that. But it is part of, you know, the same old story. Escalating violence, loss of control by Mexican authorities, failed states, and basically entire cities, entire states, the entire northern border on many levels being controlled by the drug cartel organizations whose, you know, whose funding basically comes from a very robust, very healthy drug market in the United States.

ST. JOHN: Bob?

KITTLE: Well, Alisa has used this term a couple of times of a failed state. And a few years ago, maybe two years ago when a prominent Mexican journalist made that charge, that Mexico was in danger of becoming a failed state another Bosnia kind of thing, the Mexican government reacted very strongly and sent out everybody to end the notion that Mexico was a failed state, that the Mexican government did not have control of the country of buff as these incidents of violence along the northern border continue to accelerate, the question becomes much more pressing and much more plausible that indeed Mexico, the Mexican government has lost its control over the country, at least over the northern part of the country. And the ironic thing [CHECK AUDIO] seems distant. Even in Tijuana, most Mexicans would tell you, residents of Tijuana would say, well, it doesn't affect me, if you're not involved in the drug trade. You don't have to worry about anything of that's in the entirely the case. It's spreading I'm surprised it hasn't spread across the border more into the United States than it has. But the real issue still is, this struggle for who will control Mexico. The Mexican government ownership the drug cartels?

THE COURT: Okay. Jack is calling us from San Diego. Thanks for ginning us, go ahead, Jack.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, good morning.

ST. JOHN: Good morning.

NEW SPEAKER: That's just interesting, I wanted to say, I'm hearing this on the way to work right now. And four years ago, my mother's church group here in San Diego, they decided to go back to the mother country and visit close to the country where their roots are at. And there were three buses full of mothers, basically, and they were stopped in the middle of the road in Chiapas, and said if you do not give money from everybody here, we will take people and we will kill them. Period. [CHECK AUDIO] and clean them all out, but my mother, when she got back, she was very dissatisfied with the way the Mexican government handled it. They just kind of said, well, yeah, that happens all the time, and there's nothing we can do about it.

ST. JOHN: Well, thank you for that story, jack. So I mean, Alisa, it sounds like 'cause Chiapas is a good deal further south, isn't it, so this may be that it's been happening within Mexico for a while, but now it's getting closer to the border, we're more aware of it?

BARBA: Right, well, we don't know in Chiapas, if it has any relation to the drug trade or of it's bandits on the road. That does happen too. I think the thing there was striking to me as we've been covering this story in Tamaulipas, you know, a hundred and 45 bodies, what's happened in the town of Matamoros where they've transferred many of the bodies, hundreds have shown up, relatives of people who have disappeared, and it just brings home, I think when we hear a hundred and 45 bodies we don't want to think about it, but it does bring home that each one of these people was a brother, a son, a father. And so their wives and their parents are coming and they're giving DNA samples to try to identify the bodies. And almost every family has a story of how when their son or daughter or their husband or father disappear disappeared, they called the authorities, they drove up to Reynoso or Matamoros on where they disappeared, and they went to officials in every town and said you must find my son, you must find my son. And story after story, nothing happened, nothing happened. I don't know where we get the definition of a failed state, but certainly, I was trying to imagine what would happen if something like this took place in southern San Diego County if this kind of thing was discovered? What would happen? What would the law enforcement do? How would we act? And what would we expect, and how different that would be if you lived in Mexico, and that sense of vulnerability and helplessness.

ST. JOHN: It feels almost like another world, doesn't it? Just across the border. Vita is callings from university heights. Do you have a personal perspective, Vita?

NEW SPEAKER: I have two things. First of all, sympathy for the victims, of course. I think if we don't take care of this, it's gonna eventually like a cancer come across the border and be here. And the thing is, why an anti-drug campaign? They don't use this, because the money from the people who are using drugs is going down to those people. And it seems like why rant we showing, you know, this is what your drug use is doing?

ST. JOHN: Vita, thank you for bringing that up. We wanted to talk a bit about that among the editors here, because that's an excellent question. What about the U.S. responsibility in this, bob?

KITTLE: There is absolutely no doubt the U.S. creates this problem through its demand for illicit drugs in the United States. It is a shared problem. I mean, for years, the Mexicans felt that they were a transship the point for drugs moving into the United States. And it was not gonna be a problem for them. That was 20 years ago. Well, they found out that the cartels soon took root in Mexico. So while Mexico is bearing the brunt of the violence there , is just no doubt that the Americans consuming elicit drugs are the source of the problem.

BARBA: Yeah, and the bottom line is, if you look at the drug markets in American cities, the price has not gone up since this drug war has escalated, it has not gone down, apparently. This is what I learned. Drug use is going up, marijuana, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, it's going up. And it's a recreational thing. And I guess that could -- I think the calleria point is very good. If one person's recreation can become another person's mass murder, you really have to look at that. And even recreation, not recreational, but medicinal marijuana in this state, I think one of the things that's not really looked at is where is all the pot coming from that is being sold in all of these dispensaries? It's not looked at because there's a good portion of it that actually comes up from Mexico.

ST. JOHN: Sobering perspective. Now, we just had Vicente Fox, former president Vicente Fox here on the station here just a week or so ago, and he's got a whole different perspective, doesn't he, about legalizing drugs?

BARBA: Yeah, there's a lot of senior Mexican politicians and officials who are actually proponents of legalizing, legalizing at least marijuana and some other drugs as well because they think that that will reduce some of the violence south of the border. There's not a whole lot of evidence that it will, but it's an interesting perspective.

ST. JOHN: Does the current president Calderón have a perspective on this?

BARBA: I don't think he's in favor of it.

DONAHUE: There is some evidence to it in prohibition in this country. We have a lot of similarities form the very creation of organized crime when alcohol was illegal and needed to be bootlegged in the country, so I think it's -- I find it fascinating that just in recent years we've started to have that conversation among more high level people. We have someone like Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, just last year, I believe it was, really admitting and truthfully speaking about how this is our problem that we're creating with our drug use here. So at least it seems like we're taking steps toward a different conversation.

ST. JOHN: Okay, well, we've come to the end of our board. Ask certainly a shocking story that we can't just say, oh, well, are that's happening on the other side of the board because we are part of the problem. I'd like to thank you all very good discussion today, Bob Kittle from KUSI, and bob, we really enjoy having your participation. But I gather that we might not be as welling you on this show for much longer?

KITTLE: Well, yes, I'm going to move on and spend my time writing a biography of Junipero Sera. So I'm looking forward to it. I'm excited about it.

ST. JOHN: Okay, well, we'll electric out for that. And Alisa Joyce Barba for Fronteras, thank you Alisa. And Andrew Donahue for Great, gentlemen, and thank you for listening here on the Editors' Roundtable on KPBS.