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updated 4/18/2011 3:45:56 AM ET 2011-04-18T07:45:56

The Tamaulipas state governor replaced his public security chief on Sunday after 145 bodies showed up in mass graves in the violent border state in the last two weeks.

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Gov. Egidio Torre Cantu said in a statement that he tapped former military Capt. Rafael Lomeli Martinez as the new chief because his experience in the military and with the federal police would help him coordinate beefed-up security efforts announced by federal and state authorities last week.

The outgoing chief, retired Brig. Gen. Ubaldo Ayala Tinoco, offered the governor his resignation in light of the new security efforts, saying Torre Cantu should have the opportunity to choose the leader, according to state Interior Secretary Morelos Canseco.

"The new appointment is very simple," Canseco told The Associated Press. "It is part of a commitment by Tamaulipas to strengthen the state's contribution toward an integrated public security strategy based mainly on coordination among federal, state and municipal authorities."

Lomeli, who has worked in Tamaulipas in the past, most recently coordinated Federal Police efforts in Nuevo Leon, a neighboring state also racked by violence from the warring Gulf and Zetas drug cartels.

Authorities in Tamaulipas began uncovering bodies in mass graves in early April following reports that passengers were being pulled off buses at gunpoint in the township of San Fernando. As of last week, 145 bodies had been found in 26 graves. Fernando is the same place where 72 Central and South American migrants were found slaughtered last August.

Both mass killings have been blamed on the Zetas. Only one body has been identified, that of a Guatemalan man. Authorities have yet to say whether dozens of bus passengers reported missing were found in the graves.

Grieving families
Outside a morgue on the country's northern border, weeping Mexican families stand clutching photographs of loved ones, in search of victims of the mass killings.

Ricardo Martinez, 63, is one of many grief-stricken parents who have come to the city of Matamoros on the border with Texas for news of their missing children since soldiers began digging up dozens of bodies from mass graves in nearby San Fernando.

The last time Martinez spoke to his son Elvis was when the 33-year-old called from a pay phone two weeks ago to say he was getting onto a bus so he could sneak into Texas from the border state of Tamaulipas to look for work in Houston.

The next news he got was from coroners informing him his son was one of nearly 150 bodies unearthed since last week in graves that have become a stain on the name of Tamaulipas.

"The only thing my son wanted was a job so he could try to get ahead. Here in Mexico you lose your life for aspiring for something better," said Martinez as he left the coroner's office on Saturday with his weeping daughter.

President Felipe Calderon on Friday said he has ordered an increase of federal forces in Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and parts of the neighboring states of Coahuila and San Luis Potosi without providing details, and that he would reinforce operations to ensure security for those traveling on roads and in buses.

Tamaulipas state is a magnet for migrants planning to cross into the United States illegally or those who seek work in thousands of factories on the Mexican side of the border.

The roads of Tamaulipas are a major thoroughfare for buses that gangs are now hijacking, kidnapping passengers for ransom and forcing some to join the gangs.

Combating crime
Mexico Interior Secretary Francisco Blake Mora earlier in the week announced a five-point initiative to investigate the crimes and to increase security, including the federal monitoring of transport buses.

The slayings in Tamaulipas are a bitter blow to the government's efforts to reassure Washington and the rest of the world that it is winning the war against the cartels that Calderon launched on taking office in December 2006.

"It's bad news for Mexico and for foreign investors," said Jose Luis Pineyro, a security expert at Mexico's Autonomous Metropolitan University. "Calderon is trying to sell the message that Mexico is a safe and peaceful place."

The massacres are undermining the president's claims that most drug war victims are criminals.

"When all these missing people start turning up, it's just not credible to say they're all criminals. There's no question that a sizable part of them are kidnapped migrants and kidnapped Mexicans," said Pineyro.

Image: Martin Omar Estrada Luna, alias "El Kilo"
Marco Ugarte  /  AP
Martin Omar Estrada Luna, alias "El Kilo," looks on during his presentation to the press in Mexico City on Sunday. The Mexican Navy said Saturday it had captured Estrada Luna, the presumed leader of the San Fernando cell of the Zetas drug gang, suspected in the case of the mass graves found in Tamaulipas, as well as the migrant massacre last August in the violent border state across from Texas.

As of last week, authorities said they had 17 suspects in custody in relation to the mass graves.

On Saturday, the Mexican navy nabbed a man it called one of the leaders of the San Fernando Zetas cell, presenting Martin Omar Estrada Luna, alias "El Kilo," in Mexico City on Sunday and alleging he was involved in both the killing of the 145 and the migrant massacre last August.

The navy also presented 11 others taken in the same operation who are believed to work for Estrada Luna. The Mexican government last week offered a 15 million-peso ($1.27 million) reward for information leading to Estrada Luna's capture.

Navy operation
According to a statement, the navy sent units to the area where the mass graves were found to develop intelligence and tactical operations that also involved and international exchange of information. It didn't specify if the U.S. was involved in the operation, though the U.S. has provided intelligence information to Mexican forces in the past in nabbing top drug lords.

The statement said the investigation led on Thursday to the questioning of 24 people, plus the apprehension of 25 vehicles, 15 rifles, more than 2,000 rounds of ammunition and communications equipment.

From there, authorities found Estrada Luna in a house in the Tamaulipas capital of Ciudad Victoria on Saturday. The statement said he was arrested with five other people. Authorities later apprehended six more in Ciudad Victoria in the same operation and confiscated three luxury SUVs, six more large caliber guns, ammunition and doses of white powder.

Besides Estrada Luna, the Mexican government is offering a 15 million-peso ($1.27 million) reward for information leading to the arrest of Salvador Martinez Escobedo, another alleged leader of the Zetas cell in San Fernando, plus 10 million pesos ($846,000) for Roman Palomo Rincones and 5 million pesos ($423,000) for Sarai Diaz Arroyo, who both allegedly participated in the latest massacre.

In Matamoros, corpses arrive almost daily from the San Fernando graves. Martinez was awaiting the results of a DNA test after giving forensic workers a lock of his hair. Coroners will not release the body until the results are in.

His son, a truck driver who hoped to find work in construction or landscaping, had paid a migrant smuggler to get him across the border lying just beyond the city morgue.

"We're not leaving," Martinez said, "until they give us my son's body."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Narco culture permeates Mexico, leaks across border

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  1. Tijuana, June 2009: Mexico's drug culture is defined by guns and money, to be sure, but it includes sex, movies, music and even a heavy dose of religion. It also extends across the border into the U.S.

    Since 2008, photojournalist Shaul Schwarz has been documenting that culture. Presented here are snapshots of that coverage, starting with what makes it all happen: cash. This stash was confiscated and the alleged courier, seen at center, was detained by Mexican soldiers.

    "Since the beginning of President Felipe Calderon's drug war in 2006, Mexican officials have held press conferences to show detained suspects," Schwarz notes. "At the same time the violence persists" -- with nearly 35,000 people killed through 2010. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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    Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Three young men died in this shootout in the parking lot of a shopping mall. In the first half of that year, more than 1,000 drug war deaths were counted in Juarez alone. The city of 1.3 million has been the center of a drug turf war between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Residents of a neighborhood survey the site where a body was found, presumably another victim of drug turf clashes. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Mexico City, July 2009: Mexico's drug and gang culture has a strong religious streak. Thousands of devotees seen here attend a mass for Santa Muerte -- Saint Death -- a mythical figure condemned by the Catholic Church but embraced by many poor and criminal elements. This gathering is outside a shrine in Tepito, a gritty neighborhood famous for its street markets brimming with pirated and stolen merchandise.

    "Its violent and dangerous streets serve as a sort of mecca for Santa Muerte followers," Schwarz says. "Tepito is also home to the most popular Santa Muerte shrine, which sits outside a modest home. On the first day of every month, the shrine fills with followers who come bearing statuettes of the saint. Some pilgrims make their way from the subway on their knees; many smoke weed or cigars with their saints." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Mexico City, October 2009: Devotees of Saint Judas Thaddaeus inhale glue out of plastic bags to get high as they gather outside San Hipolito church during the annual pilgrimage honoring the saint.

    Judas Thaddaeus is the Catholic Church's patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes, but in Mexico he is also known as "the saint of both cops and robbers (and prostitutes), as well as one of the biggest spiritual figures for young people in Mexico City," Schwarz says. "He has become the generic patron saint of disreputable activities. His biggest – and most important shrine – is at Hipolito, one of the best preserved colonial churches." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mexico City, October 2009: This shrine in the Colonia Doctores neighborhood pays homage to both Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde, reputedly a bandit killed by officials in 1909.

    Jesus Malverde is revered by many as a Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the poor. Several dozen such shrines exist in this neighborhood and in Tepito, where the cults thrive. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Tijuana, June 2009: A shrine to Santa Muerte sits above a home in the notorious Colonia Libertad neighborhood. The shrine is walled in by the old border fence separating Tijuana from San Diego. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Tijuana, March 2009: A man peeks through a fence toward the U.S., studying Border Patrol movements before crossing. New fences are constantly being built to deter illegal immigrants and drug traffickers.

    In 2010, President Barack Obama ordered some 1,200 National Guard troops to the Southwest border and also signed a $600 million bill to fund 1,500 new Border Patrol agents, customs inspectors and law enforcement officials. But the U.S. has also had to pull the plug on a troubled $1 billion "virtual fence" project meant to better guard stretches of the border. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Tijuana, June 2009: Federal police pat down a stripper during the raid of a large dance club. Several nightclubs in the notorious downtown red-light district were raided that night. Other parts of the strip continued as normal, with foreigners approaching young prostitutes as families with small children walked by with little notice and mariachis played on. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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    Ciudad Juarez, December 2008: A woman's body lies on the autopsy table where it was discovered that she was raped and then murdered in what was made to look like a suicide.

    "Violence against women has also surged in correlation to the daily multiple uninvestigated and unpunished homicides," Schwarz says. "The coroner's office is open 24/7 and employs more than 100 doctors, technicians and investigative specialists, who cover Ciudad Juarez and northern Chihuahua state." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Tijuana, June 2009: The drug culture is often portrayed by Mexican cinema. Here director Antonio Herrera films a scene for "Vida Mafiosa" -- Mafia Life -- a low budget film glorifying the culture. "This is the only thing selling at the moment for me," Herrera said at the time as he worked to complete his seventh narco film. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Tijuana, November 2010: A scene from "El Baleado" -- The Shooting Victim -- shows young men being executed shortly after smuggling drugs in from a beach. The film was produced by Baja Films Productions, a family-owned company that almost went out of business until family member Oscar Lopez, a San Diego resident, convinced his father to make a narco film. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Tijuana, April 2010: Los Angeles gangsters hang out at the production of a narco film. One of the gang members (not pictured) was an extra in the film. "That was a good excuse for them to come down to TJ and party where the drugs and women are cheap," Schwarz says. "It's common for gangsters/narcos to want to appear in these films." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Mexico City, October 2009: Devotees of Saint Judas Thaddaeus gather outside San Hipolito church. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Tijuana, June 2009: Young Mexicans in the Colonia Libertad neighborhood smoke pot and hang out at a spot overlooking the border with the U.S. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Burbank, Calif., April 2010: Alfredo Rios, better known by his stage name "El Komander", walks down a street just outside the studio of his agent and music producer. From Sinaloa, El Komander is one of the hottest singers/composers of "Narcocorrido" songs, which glorify the drug culture.

    "He regularly performs at private parties for Sinaloa's cartel members as well as composes songs for/about them, at times even commissioned by the drug lords," Schwarz says. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Tijuana, April 2010: Narcocorrido performer "The Scorpion" (whose real name is Amador Granados) shows off his belt while on the set of a Baja Films Productions movie that translated into English means: Seagulls Don't Fly Alone. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Culiacan, March 2009: A man and his two sons visit Culiacan's main Jesus Malverde shrine, located across from a McDonald's and near the state legislature.

    "The narco culture is becoming more and more mainstream and the shrine draws people of all walks of life," Schwarz says. "Many visitors leave Polaroid photos with pithy notes giving thanks to Malverde."

    "The image of his mustachioed face, bedecked with a neckerchief, a gold chain with a pistol charm around his neck, and a large belt-buckle with a pistol around his waist can now be found all over the U.S.," Schwarz adds. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. El Monte, Calif., April 2010: The Bukanas De Culiacan band gets ready to perform during the launch event of "Movimiento Alterado," a new form of Narcocorrido gaining popularity. "Narco music clubs are mushrooming all over L.A., and up and down the West Coast," Schwarz says.
    "It's a social movement of people who came from nothing and dream of a chance out," said Joel Vazquez, the band's manager. "It's a lot like hip hop or gangsta rap, except it's Mexican culture, not black." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pico Rivera, Calif., April 2010: Partyers use the bathroom at El Rodeo Night Club, one of the many big Narcocorrido clubs in the Los Angeles area. "The cross-over music scene and culture is generating hybrid fashion trends and lifestyle ties between the Sinaloa mainstream, in Mexico and the Mexican-American mainstream culture in L.A.," Schwarz says. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Police protect a crime scene where two bodies were found in the desert near the border with the U.S. Much of Mexico's drug violence is due to turf wars for control of the border routes. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Culiacan, July 2009: The Jardines del Humaya Cemetery hosts many grave sites dedicated to drug traffickers. Some are two- and three-stories tall; many have bulletproof glass, Italian marble and spiral iron staircases.

    "Inside the mausoleums are pictures of the deceased, often men in their 20s and 30s, and signs of Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde," says Schwarz. "And, as in many of the cemeteries found in the drug-war inflicted Mexico, rows of freshly dug graves await their new tenants." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Apatzingan, April 2010: This home hadn't been touched in the two years after it was shot at and burned down by soldiers in a deadly attack on members of the La Familia drug cartel. Many of its leaders were born in this town, and in December 2010 one of its founders was killed by soldiers there. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. The religion

    Culiacan, July 2009: A young man makes his way to the shrine of Jesus Malverde. Culiacan is the capital of the northwestern state of Sinaloa, long a hot bed of drug cultivation. For decades traffickers have worshipped at the shrine, helping to spread Malverde's fame. "Followers call Malverde the Robin Hood of Mexico," Schwarz says. "Critics say he has become a symbol of crime. Drug traffickers claim him as their own." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Tultitlan, November 2009: Santa Muerte devotees attend a service in the courtyard of a church with a 65-foot-tall statue of the mythical figure. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Angeles National Forest, Calif., August 2009: Santa Muerte worshipers gather in a creek just outside Los Angeles. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: This bridge to El Paso, Texas, is one of the legal border crossings into the U.S. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Tijuana, March 2009: Mexico's military shows off the results of a raid on a party: assault weapons and the arrests of 58 people. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Culiacan, July 2009: A new inmate kisses his wife goodbye as their daughter cries.

    The Culiacan prison is notorious for violence and riots. "Security forces most often stay outside just along the perimeter of the prison and do not go in to the living quarters themselves," Schwarz says. "Weed, other drugs and cell phones along with statues of saints are common inside this typical Mexican jail." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Tijuana, March 2009: A drug addict sits in a tent where he lives along the border canal with the U.S. "The border canal has become a regular spot for junkies to use heroin," Schwarz says. "While the Mexican police do nothing, the U.S Border Patrol are just out of jurisdiction." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Mexico City, October 2009: Jose Garcia Pichardo prays and smokes a cigar at the Santa Muerte altar in his bedroom. Pichardo said he once was a drug dealer and that two years earlier the Santa saved him from the police. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Women spread flour to soak up blood where a young man was murdered. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the border city that year, and another 3,000 in 2010.

    "As a photojournalist I have covered conflicts and wars since 1996, but Mexico’s present situation haunts me like no other," Schwarz says. "While death statistics have been documented ad nauseum, far less has been said about the broader social reality created by the drug trade. As I continue to cover this story that seems to have no end in sight, I plan to focus not only on the harsh existence in border towns, but on the culture created for millions of Mexicans and Americans inevitably involved in or affected by the drug trade and a desire for “narco luxury.” (Shaul Schwarz/ Reportage By Gett / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: Juarez:  A city at war

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