TLALMANALCO, Mexico (AP) — Investigators searched for more bodies in the muddy ground at a ranch on the rural outskirts of Mexico City Friday as forensic experts tried to determine if the badly decomposed remains pulled from a shallow grave are connected to the mysterious disappearance of 12 young revelers from a bar in the capital three months ago.
Backhoes and truckloads of investigators returned to the rain-swept, tree-lined ranch, punching what appeared to be exploratory pits near the main grave, apparently looking for other burials. Seven bodies had been found so far.
Mexico City prosecutor Rodolfo Rios said the remains are at federal labs, where experts hope DNA tests, the only way to surely identify the corpses, could be done within two days.
Kidnap gangs and drug cartels in other parts of Mexico have both been known to use mass graves to bury their victims, but such finds have been rare in the Mexico City area.
While city authorities have said the fate of the missing youths is their top priority, a federal investigator said his colleagues were the ones who found the shallow grave on a ranch in Tlamanalco east of the capital.
Federal Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam suggested they found it while looking for a gang hideout in a weapons-possession case.
Still, city prosecutor Rios told local media that evidence his office had gathered “was leading us to the area, not specifically this spot.”
Rios said officials are testing to determine if the remains covered in lime and sand belonged to the young bar-goers who vanished from the Heaven club at midday May 26, just a block from the leafy Paseo de Reforma, the capital’s equivalent of the Champs-Elysees.
The bizarre disappearance resonated across the city of 9 million people because many had come to believe it was an oasis from the rampant drug violence that had led to discovery of mass graves elsewhere in the country.
Mexico City officials have insisted since the Heaven kidnapping that large drug cartels do not operate in the capital. But the case has been a political liability: Local polls say the public is overwhelmingly opposed to how the administration of Mayor Miguel Mancera has handled the investigation.
A federal agent at the ranch, who agreed to talk about the search only if not quoted by name because he was not authorized to discuss details of the case, said clothing found with the corpses made it “90 percent sure” that officials had found Heaven victims.
Authorities set up a perimeter more than a mile (1.5 kilometers) from the excavation site on a hilly ranch known as La Negra, where federal police and attorney general’s trucks and large white vans could be seen. The private property next to Rancho La Mesa Ecological Park is walled and surrounded by oak and pine trees.
The federal Attorney General’s Office said agents had received information about possible illegal weapons on the property and obtained a search warrant. When they started looking around, they discovered the grave.
“They found a home that looked like a safe house,” Murillo Karam told reporters Thursday. “We were operating under the belief it was a weapons case.”
Later, some of the relatives showed up on the property being excavated, crying and covering their faces from the media.
“We have had three months with this anxiety,” Maria Teresa Ramos, grandmother of Jerzy Ortiz, one of the missing, told Milenio television. “We are dying every day, little by little.”
Prosecutors have said the abductions from the Heaven bar were linked to a dispute between street gangs that control local drug sales in the capital’s nightclubs and bars. They say the gangs are based in Mexico City’s dangerous Tepito neighborhood, where most of the missing lived. The families insist the missing young people were not involved in drug trafficking.
Surveillance cameras showed several cars pulling up to the bar at midday and taking the victims away. A witness who escaped told authorities that a bar manager had ordered the music turned off, told patrons that authorities were about to raid the establishment and ordered those inside to leave.
Those detained in the Heaven case include club owner Ernesto Espinosa Lobo, known as “The Wolf,” who has been charged with kidnapping, as well as another bar owner, a driver and a security guard. A fifth person, Jose de Jesus Carmona, 32, is under arrest pending charges and another is a fugitive.
In another element of the case that is reminiscent of cartel warfare, one of the owners of the Heaven bar, Dax Rodriguez Ledezma, fled authorities only to turn up dead, his body dumped and burned in a rural area with that of his girlfriend and another friend.