Gang beheadings common in central Mexico
By WILL WEISSERT
Associated Press Writer
AP PHOTO/GUILLERMO ARIAS, FILE
A police officer walks at the Villa Madero's Police building in this Oct. 9, 2006 file photo, in the Central State of Michoacan, Mexico. In Villa Madero, 18 of 32 police officers quit, saying they were tired of receiving death threats from drug smugglers.
VILLA MADERO, Mexico — The drug lords at war in central Mexico are no longer content with simply killing their enemies. They are putting their severed heads on public display.
In Michoacan, the home state of President-elect Felipe Calderon, 17 heads have turned up this year, many with bloodstained notes like the one found in the highlands town of Tepalcatepec in August: "See. Hear. Shut Up. If you want to stay alive."
Many in Michoacan's mountains and colonial cities are doing just that: They are tightlipped, their newspapers are censoring themselves and in one town, 18 out of 32 police officers quit saying they had received death threats from drug smugglers.
In the most gruesome case, gunmen burst into a nightclub and rolled five heads onto the dance floor. In another, a pair of heads were planted in front of a car dealership in Zitacuaro, a town best known until now as a nesting ground for monarch butterflies.
By a highway outside Tepalcatepec, suspected drug smuggler Hector Eduardo Bautista's tortured body was dumped on July 10. Near a black metal cross put up by his family at the spot, killers apparently avenging his death have been leaving severed heads - five so far - each with a threatening message.
Beheadings and accompanying notes in sometimes cryptic and misspelled Spanish are becoming a ghoulish vogue among the gangs that grow marijuana, cook methamphetamine and run cocaine in Michoacan. There have been 420 homicides in the state this year, including 19 police chiefs and commanders, and Juan Antonio Magana, the state's attorney general, says well over half the killings were drug-related - the work of smuggling gangs reorganizing after authorities captured some of their top leaders.
"These are groups that are very big, very strong and are out to dominate territory," Magana said in an interview.
Drug smuggling in Michoacan has traditionally been controlled by a syndicate known as Los Valencia. Police arrested its leader, Armando Valencia, in August 2003 and one of his lieutenants, Carlos Alberto Rosales Mendoza, a year later.
Now, anti-narcotics investigators say, the Gulf cartel based in northern Mexico is battling its way into Los Valencia territory, relying on "Los Zetas," ex-Mexican army operatives-turned hit men. Los Valencia loyalists have fought back fiercely.
Many notes attached to slaying victims are signed "The Family," a possible reference to Los Valencia. Some mention "La Chata," a known alias for a top reputed Gulf cartel hit man.
"They don't need to leave written messages. The mere fact that they are using such high levels of violence is sending messages of intimidation, causing fear," Magana said. "But doing it shows other gangs they can act in even more gruesome and violent ways than their rivals."
With a vast and sparsely populated Pacific coast and the rugged Sierra Madre del Sur Mountains, Michoacan is good territory for producing and smuggling drugs.
Many farmers have abandoned avocado, coffee and corn in favor of marijuana in the highlands, where roads are few and police can't easily penetrate. Smuggling gangs have cleared forests for airstrips. Small planes crammed with Colombian cocaine streak in, leaving loads that are ferried to the coast and stowed on fast boats that speed north toward the U.S. border.
Michoacan also has become a den for hidden meth labs.
Journalists statewide have covered the murders but some have avoided digging further after receiving death threats. On Oct. 13, police recovered the body of an unidentified man who had been shot 38 times and dumped outside the town of Tacambaro. An attached note in fluorescent yellow marker appeared to directly threaten the media: "The family and the ZZs are the same thing. Media outlets, don't sell out."
Calderon, who will be sworn in as president on Dec. 1, wants a new, better trained federal police force to investigate drug smuggling, longer prison terms for drug convicts and more extraditions of kingpins wanted in the U.S.
He says Mexico also needs more help from U.S. law enforcement, since Mexican smugglers are serving American drug users.
Attorney General Magana denies Calderon's contention that Mexican law enforcement is overwhelmed. But in Villa Madero, a logging town of crowing roosters and stray dogs asleep on cracked asphalt streets, the abrupt mass departure of police officers suggests a different picture.
"There's an enormous pressure here," said former officer Reyes Alberto Gamino, now retired at 21. "It's very dangerous."
Mayor Alberto Villasenor has said the police were fired for failing to show up to guard a municipal dance Sept. 16. The former officers claim they quit because gunmen were waiting to kill them for arresting a reputed drug boss.
One of the officers who resigned is Gildardo Villa. Interviewed in front of his home, Villa seemed nervous, looking over his shoulder constantly and answering questions in hushed tones.
"The threats had been coming for a long time," he said. "That's why we left."
Inside his cramped City Hall office, Justice of the Peace Apolinar Yanez acknowledged that police are afraid of the gangs, whom he described as "very well armed and very dangerous."
"I'm not going to tell you who they are, not going to give you names or tell you what kinds of activities they are involved in. I don't want problems," Yanez said. "But they were threatening the police."
Since the police officers quit, many in Villa Madero say they are afraid to leave their homes.
"There's a fear that affects everyone," said Enrique Acerra, 70, who runs a used-clothing store. "It's hard to feel safe."