MEXICO CITY — 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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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