Their families pleaded with them not to leave, fearful of the growing danger that faces migrants trekking through Mexican territory where brutal drug gangs hold sway.
But the young migrants from across Latin America insisted on going. They met their ends together, among 72 migrants massacred just 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the U.S. border.
Pieces of the migrants' lives — and the story of their terrible fate — are slowly emerging as investigators painstakingly work to identify the bodies, which were discovered bound, blindfolded and lying in a row after what appears to be Mexico's worst drug-cartel massacre.
The survivor, 18-year-old Luis Freddy Lala Pomavilla of Ecuador, said the killers identified themselves as Zetas, a group begun by former Mexican army special forces soldiers and now a lethal drug gang that has taken to extorting migrants.
The Zetas control much of the northern state of Tamaulipas, cattle-ranching country that is the last leg for migrants running the gantlet up Mexico's east coast to reach Texas.
Mexico's drug gangs have long kidnapped migrants and demanded payment to cross their territory. But the Mexican government says the cartels are increasingly trying to force vulnerable migrants into drug trafficking, a concern also expressed by U.S. politicians demanding more security at the border.
Lala, who is recovering from a gunshot wound to the neck and is under heavy guard, told investigators the migrants were intercepted on a highway by five cars, according to his statement that The Associated Press had access to Friday.
More than 10 gunmen jumped out and identified themselves as Zetas, Lala said. They tied up the migrants and took them to the ranch, where they demanded the migrants work for the gang. When most refused, they were blindfolded, ordered to lie down and shot.
Lala's mother, who lives in the United States with her husband, said she spoke to her son Friday for the first time since the attack. She said she had been trying to reach him since he didn't arrive at their home as scheduled.
"Every afternoon, I was buying phone cards to call the coyote (smuggler) and find out where my son is," she said. "I did nothing but call and call and call, and there was never an answer."
Then a Mexican hospital worker phoned and told them their son had been in "an accident."
The AP is not using the woman's name or her location to avoid putting her in potential danger.
Lala has been offered a humanitarian visa that would allow him to stay in Mexico, Immigration Commissioner Cecilia Romero said Friday.
But his mother said Lala has begged her to make arrangements for him to come to the U.S. She said she has been in contact with the Ecuadorean consulate but said they would only help get him back to Ecuador.
Other relatives told Ecuador television that Lala left his remote town in the Andes mountains two months ago, hoping to find work in the U.S. to support his pregnant 17-year-old wife. One of his eight siblings, Luis Alfredo Lala, told Ecuavisa television he begged his brother not to go.
Lala's wife, Maria Angelica Lala, told Teleamazonas that her husband paid $15,000 to the smuggler who was supposed to guide him to the U.S. That smuggler apparently tried to hide Lala's fate from his wife, calling her Wednesday to say her husband had safely reached the U.S.
Investigators have identified 31 of the migrants: 14 Hondurans, 12 Salvadorans, four Guatemalans and one Brazilian.
The 31 were the only ones who had documents on them, said Honduran Deputy Foreign Minister Alden Rivera. Investigators are collecting DNA from the rest, but Rivera said it might be impossible to identify many more.
Mexico's rising violence has contributed to a sharp drop in the number of migrants in Mexico over the past few years, Romero said.
Mexican immigration agents have rescued 2,750 migrants this year, some stranded in deserts and others who were being held captive by organized crime gangs, she said.
In Tamaulipas alone, agents rescued 812 migrants kidnapped by drug gangs, she said. Many of those migrants told authorities the cartels tried force them into drug trafficking.
"We perhaps saved them from being massacred like the 72 that we lost this time," Romero said.
Among those 72 were three Guatemala relatives, a 17-year-old boy and his two brothers-in-law in their 20s.
The three set off Aug. 9 from Agua Caliente, a farming village where people with relatives in the U.S. are easy to spot. They are the ones who have used money sent from abroad to replace their adobe homes with modern structures.
Manuel Boch said his son, the 17-year-old, longed for one of those homes. The teenager ignored his father's pleas to accept life as it is in Guatemala.
"They left because of the situation in Guatemala. There is no work. I told him he could do well enough to eat here, but he didn't want to live in poverty," Boch said.
Boch got no news of his son until Aug. 16 when unknown callers demanded a $1,000 ransom. Relatives of the two older migrants received the same call. None could afford to pay.
The families first heard of the massacre on television. Cesar Augusto Morales, father of one of the two older migrants, said his wife was sure her son was among the dead.
"I refused to sense the truth, but the heart of a mother doesn't lie," Morales said.
Associated Press writers Olga R. Rodriguez, Alexandra Olson in Mexico, Juan Carlos Llorca and Sergio Alfaro in Guatemala and Samantha Henry in the United States contributed to this report.