Mexican Cartels Send Messages of Death

William Booth, Washington Post, December 4, 2008

The death squads of the drug cartels are killing in spectacularly gruesome ways, using the violence as a language to deliver a message to society.

Increasingly, bodies show unmistakable signs of torture. Videos of executions are posted on the Internet, as taunts, as warnings. Corpses are dumped on playgrounds, with neatly printed notes beside them. And very often, the heads have been removed.

When someone rolled five heads onto the dance floor in a cantina in Michoacan state two years ago, even the most hardened Mexicans were shocked. Now ritual mutilations are routine. In the border city of Tijuana, 37 people were slain over the weekend, including four children. Nine of the adults were decapitated, including three police officers whose badges were stuffed in their mouths.

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As competing drug cartels and their fragmented cells fight the police, the Mexican army and one another for control of billion-dollar smuggling corridors into the U.S. drug market, the violence unleashed by President Felipe Calderón’s war against the traffickers grows more sensational.

An estimated 4,500 people have been killed in drug-related violence since 2007, when Calderón flooded the border and other drug hot zones with 20,000 Mexican troops and thousands of federal agents. November was the bloodiest month so far, with at least 700 killings, according to tallies kept by Mexican newspapers. Some victims had no connection to the drug trade, police say.

Twisted version of ‘shock and awe’

Experts say the cartels and their enforcers are attempting their own twisted version of “shock and awe,” broadcasting via traditional media, rumor mill and the Internet a willingness to fight to the end. Authorities also say the cartels are killing so graphically in order to sap public confidence in the government, perhaps hoping Calderón will allow the cartels to return to business as usual, when the smuggling organizations operated with the tacit support of corrupt officials.

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Violence grows more grotesque

As the war drags on, the violence grows bolder and more grotesque. Last week in Juarez, the corpses of seven men, each shot multiple times, strangled and tortured, were lined up against a garden hedge at a primary school. The killers left poster-size signs. Soon after the bodies were discovered, the local police frequency was commandeered and songs in praise of cartels were broadcast on police radios.

In Tijuana last month, a man was executed inside a church. Bystanders, including children, have been killed in daylight gun battles. Five journalists have been assassinated this year, while the hotel where federal police stay in Ciudad Juarez has been assaulted by passing gunmen.

Law enforcement officials in Mexico and the United States say the spasm of violence is born of overlapping struggles. The cartels, and the cells within them, are fighting each other, dealing with traitors inside the organization and competitors outside, which in many cases may include crooked cops who work for the cartels. The traffickers are also fighting the police and military.

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Messages left on dead bodies

The cartel killers communicate to one another and to society not only by murder but also message. In October, eight bodies were dumped facedown in an empty lot near a day-care center in Tijuana. Their hands were tied and a message read: “Here are your people.”

State prosecutors in the western state of Michoacan, where the small drug cartel La Familia is based, discovered a head in an ice chest in the port city of Lazaro Cardenas. Tape covered the eyes and an attached message read: “From the Gulf Cartel.” Two weeks ago, someone left funeral wreaths along the streets in the northern city of Hermosillo. State police say six of the wreaths included hand-lettered posters signed by the Gulf drug cartel. One of the signs read: “This is a message for the entire state police force, if you mess with us we are going to kill you and your entire family.”

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