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Mexican Police Investigate Latest Atrocity


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

A news item last weekend reminded us that we live in a largely peaceful country - right next door to a country at war with itself. In northern Mexico on Sunday, authorities found the bodies of 49 people. They were left on a highway outside Monterrey, about 75 miles from Texas. They are described as victims of the Zetas crime syndicate. And the dumping of bodies like this is not unusual in Mexico.

What we're about to discuss in the next four minutes will be disturbing to some people. NPR's John Burnett has been reporting from Mexico. He's on the line this morning from Austin, Texas. John, good morning.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's known about the 49 bodies?

BURNETT: Well, first of all, I apologize. This is probably not what you want to hear first thing in the morning. But the horrible truth is, this has become the new normal in Mexico; that's how bad it's gotten. A military patrol these found bodies - 43 men and six women - on a highway leading into the town of San Juan.

Authorities don't know who these victims are. Some of the bodies had tattoos of Santa Muerte, who's a popular folk saint who's invoked by people who are involved in drug trafficking - indicating that some of them could be criminals. But others could well be innocents. The terrible thing is, they were found without heads, hands or feet. And so the authorities are going to have a very hard time identifying them.

INSKEEP: You said that this has become normal. Is there any idea that authorities have of what the pattern is; what the reason is broadly for these killings, even if the specific 49 here are not yet known?

BURNETT: Well, these have been occurring more and more in Mexico, which is really causing enormous distress in the population. It's become this kind of grisly game of one-upmanship between two main rival cartels - the Zetas on the one hand, who control the eastern side of Mexico; and then the Sinaloa cartel, who are on the Pacific side. And the why is that these are sort of billboards. They leave messages with these big, public body drops.

They boast of their ferocity. They threaten rivals. And it's also kind of a classic terror tactic. It terrifies the local population. It makes them more willing to pay extortion, or obey a cartel dictate.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's John Burnett this morning about violence in Mexico. And John, I have to mention that this is multiyear fight here; that it was a priority of President Felipe Calderon, who took office almost six years ago. Has he managed to change very much?

BURNETT: Sadly, he hasn't. And this has become the biggest criticism of Felipe Calderon's six-year term in office. He sent the military in to patrol the streets, and to take on the cartels, and they have done that. And there have been some fearsome firefights, particularly up in the northeast, in Tamaulipas state, just across from south Texas.

He's sent the federal police in, with less results. And he's arrested numerous capos, heads of cartels, and some have been extradited to the U.S. And so the DEA is very pleased with his performance. But the people of Mexico are not.

INSKEEP: So has this become a major issue as a presidential election approaches again in Mexico?

BURNETT: It has, and the reason is because the violence seems to grow worse every time one of these cartel leaders is arrested - because what happens is, this criminal syndicate, they splinter and they fragment. And younger lieutenants, who are less disciplined, come up. And the violence just gets worse, which is what we've really seen, just even in the last 30 days.

This is issue number one with Mexicans. This is what they want their new president to take on. And so all the candidates have their own prescription for how they're going to deal with this.

INSKEEP: John, thanks very much.

BURNETT: It's been a pleasure, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's John Burnett, reporting this morning from Austin, Texas. He's been spending reporting time in Mexico, where 49 bodies were found by a roadside over the weekend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.