Beheadings A Sign Of Mexico Turf War

Marion Lloyd, Houston Chronicle, September 7, 2006

Mexico City—Masked gunmen burst into a nightclub early Wednesday and flung five human heads onto the dance floor in what was easily one of the most shocking incidents of drug violence in Mexico this year.

The Light and Shadow club in the city of Uruapan in Michoacan state was packed when the men stormed in at 1:30 a.m. and ordered customers onto the floor, state police officials said. Then they pulled the bloody heads from plastic bags and tossed them out in front of the horrified crowd.

The assailants—suspected drug gang members wearing police uniforms—also left a message scrawled on cardboard:

“The family doesn’t kill for money. It doesn’t kill women and it doesn’t kill the innocent. Only those who deserve it die. Let it be known: This is divine justice.”

The gruesome episode brought to at least 13 the number of people decapitated so far this year in Michoacan, a normally tranquil state that has been drawn into a horrific, increasingly violent turf war between rival cartels.

Nationwide, drug violence this year has claimed a record 1,500 lives, including more than 300 in Michoacan, known for lush pine forests and the charming colonial cities of Morelia and Patzcuaro.

Federal authorities are alarmed.

“Mexico is witnessing extreme violence like we’ve never seen before,” said Santiago Vasconcelos, the country’s drug czar.

Michoacan’s attorney general, Juan Antonio Magaña, played down the state’s role in the violence. “This is lamentable and worrisome,” he told reporters on Wednesday.. “But it goes well beyond our borders.”

13 police officers killed

That is little comfort to residents. Even many of the police in Michoacan—13 have been killed this year alone—are terrified.

“Any sane person would be scared,” said Marco Antonio Gonzalez, mayor of the cattle town of Tepalcatepec, where four severed heads were recently found hanging on a roadside cross.

Interviewed at the town hall, he admitted he was considering fleeing with his wife and newborn baby. But, he added, “Where would we go?”

Violence this year is also plaguing the resort cities of Acapulco, Cancun and Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo as the wars between rival drug gangs fan south across the country.

At stake is the distribution of tons of cocaine and other drugs, most of which will end up on the streets of Los Angeles, Houston and other American cities. And traffickers are more than willing to kill for their share of the multibillion-dollar trade.

“If current murder rates continue, the body count will equal or surpass the figure for 2005,” the U.S.-based Frontera NorteSur news service said Sunday. “ . . . The major part of the nation is now embroiled in organized crime feuds. Violence is reaching such levels that some narco-families are reportedly fleeing their home bases and seeking refuge in the few remaining tranquil spots of the country or attempting to relocate to the United States and Canada.”

Gruesome tactics

It’s not just the frequency of the violence that frightens Mexicans. It’s the brutality.

Traffickers’ increasingly gruesome methods include: blowing their victims up with grenades, cutting them to pieces or chopping off their heads.

Gang members are also more brazen in choosing their targets. On Aug. 17, suspected hit men gunned down a federal judge. Judges, who are rarely attacked, are now demanding police protection.

Mexican officials say the violence is the result of their own success in beheading the nation’s drug cartels.

“Their heads have been deactivated and put in a jar,” Vasconcelos said in an interview.

In response, he says, traffickers are waging an internecine war for control of the drug routes and Mexico’s increasingly lucrative domestic market.

“The criminal organizations have no way of reacting other than with violence,” he said. “And violence begets violence.”

Vasconcelos argued that the U.S. government was partly to blame for failing to stop the flow of illegal weapons across the southern border, particularly from Texas.

“There’s a huge black market in weapons in the United States that they have to control,” he said. “If they closed that, the traffickers would be hitting each other with stones instead of bazookas.”

But for now, Michoacan must cope with the violence. With just 4 million residents, the state now ranks third in the number of victims behind Baja California and Tamaulipas, which borders Texas.

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