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MEXICO CITY —Mexico's top security official said Tuesday that "security is deficient in practically the whole country," after a large group of migrants went missing in northern Mexico.
Public Safety Secretary Alfonso Durazo said the number of men pulled off a bus last week in the border state of Tamaulipas has been reported as anywhere between 19 and 25.
Durazo said the conflicting reports came from investigators and the bus driver concerning the mass abduction Thursday.
The driver said hooded men who pointed guns at the bus, and later climbed aboard, had a list of names of those they abducted. They were taken off, put into four vehicles driven by the attackers, and taken away. They still haven't been located.
All were apparently male Central American migrants and Durazo said the missing men may have contracted with human traffickers to be smuggled into the United States, but they weren't part of a caravan.
The kidnapping recalls the horrors of 2011, when dozens of passengers were hauled off buses by drug gangs in Tamaulipas, killed and their bodies dumped in mass graves. In 2010, dozens of migrants were also abducted and massacred by the same gang.
For that very reason, most of the migrant caravans that have crossed Mexico in recent months have carefully avoided crossing through Tamaulipas, even though it often represents the shortest route to the U.S. border.
Durazo said that Mexican officials were concerned about the men's fate and were searching for them, but that the government simply does not have enough police to cover the whole country.
"I think that we could say that security is deficient in practically the whole country, because of the limited number of personnel," Durazo said. He noted that at any one time, only about 6,000 to 7,000 federal police are available to patrol across the entire country.
Durazo said he hopes to have at least 80,000 of the new National Guard militarized police in service by the end of this year.
He acknowledged that the missing migrants are listed as "disappeared," though earlier in the day President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was loath to use that term.
"We are investigating to be sure, because there is a theory that this is a method that is used to get into U.S. territory," Lopez Obrador said. "It's not that they disappear, but rather that they cross the border that way. We have already had two cases like that."
Durazo acknowledged there were indications the missing men had hired a smuggler to get them over the border. But it was unclear why the smugglers would have used such an elaborate and violent plan to meet the migrants.
Durazo said four vehicles forced the bus to pull over on a highway between the town of San Fernando — where 72 migrants were massacred in 2010 — and the border city of Reynosa. They pointed assault rifles at the bus while four of the attackers, wearing hoods or ski masks, boarded and read off a list of names. Those called were led away to the waiting vehicles.
There have also been instances in the past in which one immigrant-smuggling gang would "steal" a shipment of migrants from another gang.
Lopez Obrador is desperate to avoid any repetition of the massacres of 2010 and 2011, saying "that is what we are most worried about."
"What we want is to continue investigating, because we don't want a repetition of lamentable, horrifying cases like San Fernando," the president said. "We have to care for migrants, not leave them unprotected."
In the past, drug gangs have often kidnapped migrants to demand ransom payments from their relatives in the United States. But Durazo said no reports of ransom demands have been received.