MATAMOROS, Mexico (AP) — Three U.S. citizens missing for more than two weeks have been found dead in Mexico near the border city of Matamoros, and authorities are questioning a local police unit about possible involvement, the attorney general in northern Tamaulipas state said Thursday.
The father of the three, Pedro Alvarado, identified them from photographs of the bodies showing tattoos, Attorney General Ismael Quintanilla Acosta told Radio Formula. Clothing found with the bodies also matched that of Erica Alvarado Rivera, 26, and brothers, Alex, 22, and Jose Angel, 21, who had been visiting their father in Mexico and disappeared Oct. 13 along with 32-year-old Jose Guadalupe Castaneda Benitez, Erica Alvarado's boyfriend.
Parents of the siblings have said witnesses reported they were seized by men dressed in police gear identifying themselves as "Hercules," a security unit in the violent border city heavily racked by warring cartels. Quintanilla said at a news conference that nine of the unit's 40 officers are being questioned.
"We will apply the full force of the law and zero tolerance," Gov. Egidio Torre Cantu said, lamenting the death of three Americans and a Mexican citizen even though their identities had yet to be confirmed by DNA.
It would the third case of abuse and killing by the state if police are involved. Mexico already is engulfed in the case of 43 students missing in southern Guerrero state at the hands of a mayor and police working with a drug cartel. In June, the army killed 22 suspected gang members in Mexico state and then altered the scene and intimidated witnesses to hide the fact that most were executed after they surrendered, a National Commission on Human Rights report said last week.
Authorities said late Wednesday it could take 24 to 48 hours for DNA tests to determine if the bodies were those of the Alvarado siblings, who were last seen in El Control, a small town near the Texas border west of Matamoros.
"They were good kids," an aunt, Nohemi Gonzalez, said while the family waited for official confirmation. "I don't know why they did that to them."
The three siblings share their mother's modest brick home on a quiet street in Progreso less than three miles from the Texas-Mexico border. Erica, who has four children between the ages of 3 and 9, had been scheduled to begin studying to become a nursing assistant next month.
Brothers Jose Angel and Alex should have been in Missouri by now. They had been scheduled to make their annual pilgrimage as migrant farm workers more than a week ago, Gonzalez said. When they weren't on the road, they divided their time between their mother's house in Texas and their father's Mexico. They would stay with him for two or three weeks at a time, helping out around his mechanic's shop.
Jose Angel, the youngest, had tattoos reflecting the family split — the family's last name on his shoulder, his dad's name on his right hand and his mom's on his left.
Officials have not commented on the events that led up to the disappearances, but the families' informal inquiries produced this version:
On Sunday, Oct. 12, Erica drove her black Jeep Cherokee across the border to El Control. She dropped it at her father's house and went to visit with her boyfriend.
Her mother, Raquel Alvarado, had told her to be back in Progreso by early Monday morning, because Raquel had to work and Erica's kids had to get to school. Raquel put the kids to bed Sunday night and awoke at 4 a.m. to see Erica was not home. She began calling her daughter's cellphone, but got no answer. At that point, it appears Erica was fine.
She continued calling through the morning of Oct. 13. "I'm always worried about her when she goes over there," the mother said.
Around 1 p.m., she reached her former husband. He told her Erica had called her brothers and asked them to bring her Jeep to her at a roadside restaurant under a bridge near El Control where she was eating with her boyfriend. One brother drove her Jeep and the other drove his Chevrolet Tahoe because they all planned to return to Progreso from there.
According to Raquel Alvarado, witnesses told family members that the brothers arrived around 12:30 p.m. and saw members of the police unit called Hercules pushing their sister and Castaneda and hitting Erica. When the brothers intervened the police took all four of them, along with their vehicles. The witnesses said the armed men identified themselves as members of the Hercules unit and warned them against intervening.
A September news release from the city about Hercules showed an armed force in fatigues and face paint. Mayor Leticia Salazar officially introduced Hercules as a group with particular skills to confront crime in high-risk operations.
The statement named city clerk Joe Mariano Vega as its commander. A message left at his office was not returned. In an interview earlier this year, Vega said Hercules was made up of former marines and soldiers who would police hot zones for crime in the city's neighborhoods.
However, in Matamoros this week it was difficult to get clear answers about Hercules.
Salazar has been photographed with them in her own matching uniform and beret, but she did not return messages left in person at her office by The Associated Press. Neither did the city's spokeswoman.
Like other border cities in Tamaulipas, Matamoros has not had a municipal police force in years. The federal government took their weapons and confined them to barracks in an effort to root out corruption. Matamoros has since been policed by a mixture of marines and soldiers and state and federal police.
Juan Sanchez Alvarado, who is in charge of the city's public security office and director of its transit police, said Wednesday that the members of the Hercules unit provide security for city officials and nothing else. He said they were accredited by state police in the Tamaulipas capital of Ciudad Victoria and formed some time earlier in 2014.
Asked who they answer to, Sanchez seemed puzzled. They do not answer to him, he said. He said he imagined they answer to whichever city officials they happen to be guarding. He also couldn't say how many members of Hercules there are, where they are based or who their commander is.
Sanchez did say, "I haven't received any complaint related to them."