MEXICO CITY — Mexican marines found the dumped bodies of 72 people at a rural location in northern Mexico following a shootout with suspected drug cartel gunmen that left one marine and three suspects dead, the Navy reported late Tuesday.
The cadavers of 58 men and 14 women were found at a spot near the Gulf coast south of the border city of Matamoros. It appears to be the largest drug-cartel body dumping ground found in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon launched an offensive against drug trafficking in late 2006.
"The federal government categorically condemns the barbarous acts committed by criminal organizations," The Navy said in a statement. "Society as a whole should condemn these type of acts, which illustrate the absolute necessity to continue fighting crime with all rigor."
Mexican drug cartels often use vacant lots, ranches or mine shafts to dump the bodies of executed rivals or kidnap victims. The Navy did not give details on the victims' identities, who had killed them or whether the bodies had been buried.
The discovery of bodies came about when Marines manning a checkpoint on a highway in northern Tamaulipas state were approached by a wounded man who said he had been attacked by cartel gunmen at a nearby ranch. The man was placed under the protection of federal authorities.
Navy aircraft were dispatched to the scene, and when the gunmen saw them, they opened fire on the marines and tried to flee in a convoy of vehicles.
In the ensuing shootout, one marine and three suspected gunmen were killed. Navy personnel seized 21 assault rifles, shotguns and rifles, and detained a minor.
The youth, who was apparently part of the gang, was handed over to civilian prosecutors.
When marines searched the area, near the town of San Fernando, Tamaulipas, they found the bodies. It was unclear whether the victims had been killed at the same time or separately, and the Navy did not say when they were found.
The area has been wracked by bloody turf battles between the Gulf drug cartel and their one-time allies, the Zetas drug gang.
In May, authorities discovered 55 bodies in an abandoned mine near Taxco, a colonial-era city south of Mexico City that is popular with international tourists.
In July, investigators found 51 corpses in two days of digging in a field near a trash dump outside the northern city of Monterrey. Many of those found were believed to have been rival traffickers. But cartels often dispose of the bodies of kidnap victims in such dumping grounds.
More than 28,000 people have been killed in violence tied to Mexico's drug war since the offensive began.