Relatives of people who have gone missing in Mexico's drug war are streaming to the latest epicenter of the bloody conflict, a morgue where 59 bodies are being examined after being pulled from a mass grave south of the U.S. border.
Families are looking for loved ones not seen for a couple of weeks, others a few months _ some as long as three years. Authorities are still not sure what kind of victims were tossed in eight separate pits found by Mexican security forces this week, but suspect at least some had been abducted from buses by gunmen starting March 25.
One man waiting Thursday outside the morgue in this border city _ who refused to give his name for fear of reprisals _ said his uncle and a cousin left their hometown of Ciudad Valles in the central state of San Luis Potosi on March 25. They were traveling by bus to Rio Bravo in Tamaulipas state but haven't been heard from.
He said they were supposed to arrive in Rio Bravo on March 26 for a two-week job watering sorghum fields.
"They never made it," he said, adding that he was afraid to say anything else. "Here one is afraid to talk, here we don't talk about what happens, but we are desperate to know what happened to them."
Most of those gathering outside the morgue were desperate for a shred of evidence _ even for confirmation of their worst fears.
"I just want to know if he is dead or alive so I can have peace," said Flor Medellin, her eyes watery as she waited with her husband.
Medellin said her 43-year-old brother last checked in with family last September while hauling cattle in neighboring Nuevo Leon state, like Tamaulipas a border state plagued with drug gang violence.
"They never found the cattle or the trailer truck. They found no traces of him," Medellin, a 41-year-old laundry manager, said.
"It's really sad what we're going through," she added.
Medellin said her brother often drove on a dangerous highway in Tamaulipas connecting Matamoros to the state capital, Ciudad Victoria. It goes through San Fernando, where the clandestine graves were found at a spot about 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of the border at Brownsville, Texas.
"We think he was intercepted and that they stole everything from him and we don't know what happened after that. One always has hope that he is alive, but all we want is to know what happened to him," said Medellin's husband, Felipe Valadez.
State authorities in Tamaulipas said they started receiving reports in late March that gunmen were pulling men off buses on the stretch of road that leads past San Fernando. The buses they were allowed to leave without them.
Federal security spokesman Alejandro Poire announced Thursday that a total of 14 suspects linked to the killings had been arrested between Friday and Wednesday. Those arrests apparently led authorities to the pits.
Poire said the suspects belonged to a "criminal cell," but did not specify which gang or cartel they may have belonged to. He said the government is now placing a special emphasis on dismembering "the most violent gangs," but did not specify who they were.
The grisly discovery came in virtually the same spot where 72 migrants were murdered last August in a massacre that authorities blamed on the Zetas drug cartel. Two survivors told investigators that the migrants, from other Latin American countries who were trying to reach the U.S., were shot because they refused to work for the gang.
By Thursday, investigators had identified a few victims of the latest killings as Mexicans, not transnational migrants. They did not say if they were connected to 12 official missing-person reports from the buses.
Authorities interviewing witnesses on the bus abductions calculated that from 65 to 82 people went missing, Tamaulipas state Interior Secretary Morelos Canseco said.
Although federal authorities launched an offensive in the region in November seeking to regain control of territory from the warring Gulf and Zetas cartels, criminals have become so brazen they apparently kidnapped the bus passengers in a stretch of open desert that locals say lay between two military checkpoints. Mexico's military would not comment on the location of roadblocks for security reasons.
Authorities speculate the men pulled off the buses fell victim to ever more brutal recruiting efforts to replenish cartel ranks. But one local politician, who didn't want to be quoted by name for safety reasons, said there were rumors that the Gulf cartel was sending buses of people to fight the Zetas, who control that stretch of road and who began boarding buses in search of their rivals.
Whether the victims found in the pits were innocents caught up in the violence, migrants or drug traffickers executed by rivals, there are many more missing in San Fernando, the politician said. "If they keep looking they'll find more and more mass graves," he said.