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At Mexico Morgue, Families of Missing Seek Clues

Police officers guarded a truck containing bodies found in mass graves in northern Mexico in Mexico City on Thursday.

MATAMOROS, Mexico — The last time anybody heard from Josué Román García was last August, after he and his older brother stopped for dinner in a one-horse town about 90 miles south of the Texas border. His final known words went out via text message, from inside the trunk of a car.
Police officers guarded a truck containing bodies found in mass graves in northern Mexico in Mexico City on Thursday.

“They just kidnapped us in San Fernando,” Mr. Román, a 21-year-old student, wrote to a friend. He warned against calling, and added, “If anything happens, just tell my parents, ‘thanks, I love them.’ ”

On Wednesday, his father, Arturo Román Medina, answering calls on a cellphone that stores that brief note, arrived at the morgue in this border city, hoping and fearing that he would find his sons. For two weeks now, the authorities have been bringing in bodies from mass graves around San Fernando, 145 corpses at last count, and with each new grave discovered, another crowd appears, seeking news of missing loved ones, clutching photographs, holding out their arms to give blood for a DNA sample.

Even after government promises of more security following the discovery of a mass grave holding the remains of 72 Central and South American migrants last summer, also in San Fernando, Tamaulipas remains a state that experts describe as ungoverned — or simply failed.

Gunmen believed to be tied to the Zetas assassinated the lead candidate for governor last year and later forced a mass exodus from a small town near the Texas border. Extortion payments have become more regular than taxes, security analysts say, while many of the authorities are either terrorized or bought off: 16 municipal police officers have been arrested so far in connection with kidnappings and killings.

“It is one of the places where clearly state, federal and local authorities are not in control,” said Eric Olson, a security expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. “It’s tragic, it’s unfortunate, but it’s a reality.”

Mr. Román, the father of two missing sons, complained that government checkpoints are always in the same place and easy for criminals to avoid. Alfonso Ortega, whose brother Martín disappeared a year ago on his way to Matamoros, described a galling lack of urgency.

“The government is not moving,” Mr. Ortega said. “It’s not doing anything.”

Many of the gang’s early leaders served in the Mexican military, and they have used their experience to create a level of intimidation that outmatches most rivals. No local newspaper dares to print the photos the government has issued for the 17 suspects in the latest San Fernando killings.

Indeed, the morgue and the prosecutor’s office next door are now the area’s main hubs of activity. This week, there were dozens of people shifting uncomfortably on chairs in tiled hallways, their sadness subdued as they waited to give statements.

But few of those who are arrested in Mexico are ever convicted.

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