Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Laredo: Majority of Valley kidnappings tied to drug gangs

Yes, the Mexican crime wave is mostly drug and smuggling related. It does seem to have also managed to result in the deaths of dozens of police, police chiefs, and journalists.

The Monitor - McAllen, Texas

Mexico tourism takes hit

Mexico tourism takes hit

Dallas Morning News |

Violence, political upheaval keeping some U.S. travelers away

12:03 AM CST on Tuesday, October 31, 2006

By LAURENCE ILIFF / The Dallas Morning News

ACAPULCO, Mexico – Fear of terrorism far from home has caused record numbers of Americans to visit peaceful, nearby Mexico since the 9/11 attacks, but now drug-related violence and political upheaval are pushing them back, officials and analysts say.

The number of foreign tourists visiting Mexico – the vast majority of them Americans – has fallen by 4 percent this year, and several parts of the country have become subject to U.S. travel advisories similar to those issued for the violence-troubled U.S.-Mexico border.
Mexico is the top foreign tourist destination for Texans. American Airlines has a direct Dallas-Acapulco flight during the winter tourist season, and one North Texas travel agent said about half the ocean cruises he sells pass through Mexican ports.

But a generalized feeling of insecurity and government inaction in Mexico is reverberating across the U.S. border and threatens more than the tourism industry if left unchecked, analysts said.
Also Online

Tourism trouble spots: 'What we're witnessing in Mexico is a social breakdown that carries ramifications for all sectors of society,' said Ana María Salazar, political commentator in Mexico City and former Pentagon official. 'People just don't feel safe anymore.'

On Monday, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza elevated a travel warning for Oaxaca City, a center of cultural tourism, after the killing of an American on Friday and the intervention Sunday of federal police to end a five-month protest by teachers and leftist groups.

"U.S. citizens should avoid any travel to Oaxaca City, and if they must travel there, they should exercise extreme caution throughout the state of Oaxaca until the government of Mexico restores order to the area," Mr. Garza said in a prepared statement.

The slain American was cameraman Bradley Roland Will, 36, of the media organization Indynews. He was shot to death with two Mexicans. Protesters blamed police for shootings against them in recent months that have killed at least 12 people.

While top tourist destinations for North Texans such as Cancun and the Mayan Riviera have been hit harder by hurricanes than by crime, other popular tourist areas are raising reds flags at home and abroad.

• Assassinations by drug-trafficking groups in and around Acapulco have become an almost daily occurrence, and severed heads have been left in tourist areas. Police have been attacked with grenades in Acapulco and another Guerrero state resort, Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo.

"With soldiers with machine guns patrolling the beaches, you can become a little nervous as a tourist," said political commentator Homero Aridjis.

If they persist, the violent images of Mexico can destroy local tourism economies, as they have in Oaxaca, Mr. Aridjis said.

• The central state of Michoacán, which will host touristy Day of the Dead celebrations this week, has become the latest narco killing field. Five severed heads were recently thrown on the dance floor of a popular disco in the town of Uruapan, part of the tourist corridor that includes Pátzcuaro and Morelia.

• Mexico City is just starting to recover from a political protest over the July 2 presidential election that lasted into mid-September and slashed foreign tourism. But another protest by losing presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador is planned for Nov. 20.

Mexican officials acknowledge that President-elect Felipe Calderón must act quickly after taking office Dec. 1 to lure Americans back. He must also provide more jobs to keep people from crossing illegally into the U.S.

"The president-elect just told a meeting of businessmen that the most important thing for generating tourism in this country – and growth and development and jobs – is security," Tourism Minister Rodolfo Elizondo said. "I would be the happiest man on Earth if Mexico could offer security in each and every place where we have tourism potential."

Majority safe
At the same time, Mr. Elizondo said that all nations – the U.S. included – have violence that can affect visitors. While increasing violence tarnishes Mexico's image abroad, the vast majority of the nation remains remarkably safe, he said.

"This is not an issue of generalized insecurity because [the narcos] don't even go after the local population," Mr. Elizondo said. "But no one wants to be in the middle of a shootout, right?"

Mr. Elizondo said security concerns, including drug-related killings and political upheaval, are to blame for half of the drop in foreign tourism from January to August, compared with the same period in 2005.

More than 22 million foreigners visited Mexico in 2005 and spent $12 billion.

Foreign tourism is down by about 350,000 people so far this year, meaning about 175,000 stayed away because of insecurity, according to his calculation. Other factors that hurt the industry were bad weather and Cancun's ongoing recovery from Hurricane Wilma last year, Mr. Elizondo said.

North Texans react
John Krieger, president of the Dallas-based travel agency Cruise and Tour Center, said locals are cutting their travel to Mexico, especially cruises. But, he said, it's more about high energy prices, concern about the housing market and other economic issues than safety fears.

"The two things that motivate American travelers are personal safety and cleanliness," Mr. Krieger said. "I have heard no instance in which people don't feel safe" going to Mexico.

First-time travelers might be more likely to be scared off, he said. "It's easier for them to say 'no.' They just tend to be more fragile."

The U.S. State Department's "public announcement" on the state of security in Mexico says: "Public sources suggest that narcotics-related violence has claimed 1,500 lives in Mexico this year. In recent months there have been execution-style murders of Mexican and U.S. citizens in Tamaulipas (particularly Nuevo Laredo), Michoacán, Baja California, Guerrero, and other states."

Exaggerated fears?
Some tourism officials say that the fear is exaggerated.

"These are isolated incidents, lamentable, but they are not affecting tourism," said Elvia Zavala Jiménez, Acapulco's tourism director. Ms. Zavala said that she has asked travel agents in the U.S. whether they worry about security in Acapulco and that they have said no.

For example, cruise ship passengers, she said, "feel just as safe [on the streets of Acapulco] as they do on the cruise ships."

The 15 percent drop this year in international tourism to the beach resort, she said, is because of bad weather and the loss of cruise traffic.

Mr. Zavala said she has negotiated deals that will bring more cruise ships carrying Americans, more flights from the East Coast and more spring breakers in coming months.

But Mr. Aridjis, the political commentator, said Mexico needs to come to terms with its lack of security, not deny it, and he thinks Mr. Calderón is just the man to do so.

"Not only are the tourists scared, the Mexican people are scared," he said.

"Calderón is going to be like the captain of a ship that has gone adrift and needs to be put back on course," Mr. Aridjis said. "He has the character, determination and intelligence to do that."

Sunday, October 29, 2006

3 police killed, 1 decapitated in Mexico

3 police killed, 1 decapitated in Mexico - Yahoo! News: "3 police killed, 1 decapitated in Mexico Sat Oct 28, 10:38 PM ET

ACAPULCO, Mexico - The bodies of three state police officers, one of whom had been decapitated, were found Saturday in a sport utility vehicle abandoned outside the Pacific resort city of Acapulco, police said.

Acapulco has seen a wave of beheadings, shootings, stabbings and grenade attacks on police stations. Criminals have left the decapitated heads of at least six victims in front of government offices with threatening notes attached and authorities say the violence is part of a turf war between drug traffickers over shipment routes.
The two commanders and an agent with the state's Ministerial Investigative Police were kidnapped Friday in Chilpancingo, the capital of Guerrero state. Their remains were found the next morning in a vehicle abandoned near a highway linking Acapulco and Mexico City, 180 miles to the north, said Jorge Valdez, a spokesman for the state public safety secretary.
No arrests have been made in connection to the killings.
One commander, identified as Isaac Nava, was decapitated and his head recovered inside a black plastic bag in Chilpancingo, 60 miles north of Acapulco. Another victim was wrapped in a blanket and the third had colored tape covering his face, Valdez said.
Revenge may have been the motivation for the killings, Valdez said, noting Nava was involved in the recent capture of two suspected drug smugglers in Acapulco."

Mexican Riots in Oaxaca (Photo Essay)

This is the dead American photograhper being carried from the scene.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Widespread Bribery on the Border


From California to Texas, 200 officials indicted since 2004.

By Ralph Vartabedian, Richard A. Serrano and Richard Marosi, Times Staff Writers

October 23, 2006

EL PASO — Bribery of federal and local officials by Mexican smugglers is rising sharply, and with it the fear that a culture of corruption is taking hold along the 2,000-mile border from Brownsville, Texas, to San Diego.

At least 200 public employees have been charged with helping to move narcotics or illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexican border since 2004, at least double the illicit activity documented in prior years, a Times examination of public records has found. Thousands more are under investigation.

Criminal charges have been brought against Border Patrol agents, local police, a county sheriff, motor vehicle clerks, an FBI supervisor, immigration examiners, prison guards, school district officials and uniformed personnel of every branch of the U.S. military, among others. The vast majority have pleaded guilty or been convicted.

Officials in Washington and along the border worry about what lies below the surface. "It is the tip of the iceberg," said James "Chip" Burrus, assistant director of the criminal investigation division of the FBI. "There is a lot more down there. The problem is, you don't know what you don't know."

What is known — from court cases, other public records and dozens of interviews — is alarming enough. Some schemes have displayed considerable sophistication among Mexican drug lords, and their success shows a discouraging willingness by public employees to take tainted money.

Though America's southern border may evoke images of a poor backwater, it is alive with vast amounts of ill-gotten wealth, shadowy organizations that ply the waters of the Rio Grande, and brazen schemes that seem borrowed out of Cold War espionage.

Perhaps the most revealing example of smugglers' savvy was their cultivation of the highest-ranking FBI official in El Paso, Special Agent in Charge Hardrick Crawford.

FBI agents thought they had turned alleged drug kingpin Jose Maria Guardia into an informant, but Guardia was working as a double agent for the Mexican drug lords. He drew Crawford into a personal friendship, and provided a job for Crawford's wife, a country club membership for the couple and family trips to Las Vegas.

In August, after the chummy relationship became public, Crawford was convicted on federal charges of trying to conceal his friendship with Guardia. He could be sentenced to up to five years in prison and fined half a million dollars.

Drug rings once planted a mole in a federal agency, and officials worry others are lurking. The rings have entangled U.S. agents in sexual relationships. And they have amassed files on individual U.S. agents, with details about their finances, families and habits — even the kind of bicycles their kids ride.

"They hire guys to watch the narcotics agents," says Lee Morgan II, who retired as the head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Douglas, Ariz., this year. "They know what time we get up in the morning. When we go to work. What kind of car your wife drives.

"We had an informant tell us he saw a film of us as we exited our office that was being shown in Mexico. They had our license plate numbers."

The Mexican criminal networks can afford lavish payoffs. Bribery payments have topped $1 million.

Paul K. Charlton, U.S. attorney for Arizona since 2001, is convinced border corruption is worsening — and jeopardizing the trust that U.S. communities place in their government.

"The concern for me is that we can very quickly develop a culture that would be more accepting of that kind of misconduct," Charlton said. "You only have to look south of the border to see what happens when a certain level of corruption is accepted."

Officials warn that the risk of public corruption will grow as Congress and the Bush administration respond to public demands to improve border security. Customs and Border Protection, a part of the Department of Homeland Security, wants to add 10,000 employees to its workforce of 42,000, most of whom are already stationed along the Mexican border.

"If you increase the number of people on the border, you are going to get more corruption," said the FBI's Burrus.

More security, more corruption

Stepped-up border security also makes corruption all the more necessary to smugglers.

"As we tighten up on the border, it will make it harder for the traffickers to get across," said Johnny Sutton, U.S. attorney for Texas' Western District. "You have to be creative about getting your poison into the U.S. Obviously, corrupting the officials is a part of it."

Critics blame sloppy hiring practices, inadequate training and weak internal controls. Agents are vulnerable because morale in the agency is "pathetic," stemming in part from illegal immigrants' phony allegations against agents that have unfairly ruined careers, said T.J. Bonner, head of the union for Border Patrol agents.

Border Patrol Chief David V. Aguilar rejects those claims, saying morale is good thanks to more staffing and better equipment. Wages for public employees in the poor border economies are respectable; Border Patrol agents start at about $35,000 a year and can exceed $65,000 with overtime.

Aguilar said the Border Patrol had increased ethics training at its academy and set up anticorruption programs in the field, and he said it conducted new background checks on its agents every five years. "We are doing everything we can to root out these agents, these criminals, within our organization," Aguilar said.

But such efforts sometimes stand little chance against the greed of weak agents and the power of smugglers with money to spread around.

"They are going to try to find ways to breach our enforcement efforts," said Aguilar. "They will try to flank us, tunnel us, fly over and to corrupt our efforts."

While corruption is growing, the number of internal investigators overseeing a vastly expanding workforce is stagnant or even shrinking.

Aguilar, who must rely on other agencies to investigate the Border Patrol, has demanded more prompt and thorough investigations. Others complain that infighting within the Department of Homeland Security has hobbled enforcement.

(All the major border agencies are part of Homeland Security: Customs and Border Protection includes the Border Patrol, which polices the entire border except for ports of entry themselves, handled by Field Operations; Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, which handles major border-related investigations including corruption cases; and Citizenship and Immigration Services, which handles routine immigration matters.)

Michael Maxwell resigned this year as head of internal affairs for the Citizenship and Immigration Service after clashing repeatedly with Homeland Security over a shortage of resources. When he left, 3,000 allegations of misconduct, including 100 reports of bribery, were uninvestigated, he said.

"Nobody is seriously addressing corruption," Maxwell said. "The corruption is pervasive."

The Alvarez brothers

Though a tiny fraction of federal, state and local employees at the border have been corrupted, it takes only a few to help move large amounts of drugs or illegal immigrants.

Typical are the Alvarez brothers, Juan and Jose. Juan, a senior Border Patrol agent and canine handler at the station in Hebbronville, Texas, spearheaded an operation with his brother that allowed more than 30,000 kilos of marijuana into this country from 2003 to 2005. With Jose serving as an intermediary between his brother and a drug ring in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, the two netted $1.5 million in bribes. They bragged that they offered a "100% passage guarantee."

Their "green-light" tactics were so well developed that smugglers could have moved "nuclear weapons" over the border, said Asst. U.S. Atty. Marina Marmolejo.

She said in court that they had planned their operations down "to the very last minute," checking who was on border duty each day and what checkpoint surveillance equipment was in use, and making sure that agent Alvarez "was the only one out there manning traffic." It was, she said, "perfectly planned."

Until red flags started popping up. The brothers took trips to Las Vegas. A $20,000 cash deposit was made on a home. One brother bought a $2,500 Tag Heuer watch. A wife making $8 an hour suddenly opened a bank account with $7,000.

Juan was sentenced in February to 20 years in prison, Jose to 17. U.S. District Judge George Kazen was unmoved by their expressions of remorse. Across the Rio Grande, Kazen said, police corruption was destroying the local Mexican community, making it "not much better than Iraq." He warned that the U.S. side was becoming equally dangerous because of cops gone bad.

"You hate to see that cancer come here," he said.

Government help

The narcotics networks sometimes get direct help from local Mexican governments. Last year, federal prosecutors in Arizona charged Police Chief Ramon Robles-Cota of Sonoyta, Mexico, a small town near the Lukeville border crossing, with drug trafficking and bribery.

His swings into Arizona were chauffeured by one of his officers, Julio Cesar Lozano-Lopez, who admitted in federal court that he drove his chief into Arizona twice in 2005 to meet with Border Patrol agents and spread bribe money around. The chief remains free in Mexico.

In a 2005 wake-up call about the scope of border corruption, a major FBI-led sting in Arizona netted 71 guilty pleas by National Guard members, state prison guards and a federal inspector. Known as Operation Lively Green, the sting demonstrated that large numbers of government employees at the border were willing to take a bribe.

But nobody in government has measured all the criminal cases across every jurisdiction, agency and state.

The Times examined case files, public announcements and other public records dating to 2004 and interviewed officials in every U.S. attorney's district along the border as well as local and federal law enforcement agents and key county prosecutors.

Nearly half of the cases were associated with Lively Green and another major FBI sting in Arizona, code-named Double Driver, which caught 26 Arizona Department of Transportation clerks in 2004 who were issuing fraudulent driver's licenses.

Even excluding those stings, the number of indicted individuals still shows a steady growth: 17 in 2004, 35 in 2005 and 52 so far in 2006.

The longer-term trend also appears troubling. One of the few historical benchmarks is a General Accounting Office report on border corruption that counted all the cases of corrupt immigration, customs and Border Patrol agents during the mid-1990s.

The GAO identified 28 such cases in five years. The Times review of the same job categories turned up 38 cases in just the last three years.

Not just drugs

In the past, border corruption was mainly associated with narcotics. But increasingly, immigrant smugglers — who command huge fees from people trying to cross illegally into the U.S. — are also making payoffs.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 called attention the risks posed by human smuggling: Though no terrorists are known to have slipped across the Mexican border yet, many law enforcement officials are deeply worried that corrupt inspectors might let it happen.

"Who's to say a potential terrorist can't get in that way?" asks Jack W. Hook, a special agent in charge of the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general's office in San Diego.

Mario Alvarez and Samuel McClaren, senior U.S. Border Patrol agents in El Centro, Calif., helped launch a program that jailed dozens of such human smugglers. In March, they were told to come to El Centro headquarters to receive an award. Instead, they were arrested in front of stunned fellow agents.

They eventually pleaded guilty to taking cash bribes to release immigrants from detention centers and then falsify reports that they had returned the individuals to Mexico. They were caught when another Border Patrol agent obtained a telephone call list from a captured smuggler and found their number on it.

For every criminal indictment, there are many more cases that never reach public attention.

ICE is investigating 2,097 criminal cases, the agency says, and operates a hotline that received 7,500 allegations of internal misconduct in fiscal year 2005.

Most corruption cases involve federal employees, but local officials, including police, are also on the take.

Jesus Lorenzo Meza was hired three years ago as a police officer in Edinburg, Texas, even though — unknown to the police chief — Meza and four of his brothers had been running an elaborate drug smuggling operation for years, according to an indictment. They used boats and other means to move more than 15,000 pounds of marijuana and 500 kilos of cocaine.

Federal agents, quietly tracking their movements, logged more than 2,000 telephone conversations. But the FBI and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration never told Police Chief Quirino Munoz about their ongoing probe or warned him against hiring Meza, the chief has complained.

The task of arresting Meza was left to his fellow officers, who confronted him in April at the end of his night shift at the jail, seized his badge and locked him in a cell. Now, the chief said, his 100 officers are demoralized. Meza awaits trial.

Criticism of screening

The escalating corruption among federal employees has drawn charges that Homeland Security's screening and training of new employees is sloppy.

Oscar Ortiz, praised in a job performance review as a "remarkable" Border Patrol agent, became a partner in a smuggling ring that trafficked dozens of illegal migrants through the rugged backcountry east of San Diego.

Ortiz turned out to be an illegal immigrant himself, and had been detained in 2001 on suspicion of smuggling illegal immigrants in his car.

Fernando Arango of Rio Rico, Ariz., was hired as a customs inspector even though he had fled a drug smuggling charge 15 years earlier. Last year, he was charged with taking $50,000 to wave through the border checkpoint a recreational vehicle that he believed contained 200 kilograms of cocaine.

Though federal officials voice outrage over corruption, a sharp debate exists below the surface over whether resources are sufficient to combat the problem.

Some trace the problem to the merger of several agencies to create Homeland Security. Before the merger, the Customs Service alone had about 180 internal investigators for its 22,000 employees, said former Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner.

They were reorganized into ICE, which now has 160 investigators to oversee about 72,000 employees across three border-related agencies.

"It diminished our ability to be as vigilant and on top of the corruption issue as we were in the past," said Bonner, who fought to keep internal investigators in the new agency. "The whole thing became more fragmented."

The FBI is rushing more agents to the border to address the problem, said Burrus, the assistant director. In most of its field offices, the FBI allocates 20% of its agents to public corruption cases. Along the border, it is 40% to 60%. In recent years, it has boosted public-corruption staffing by a third.

"We are doing the best we can with the resources we have," Burrus said. "There will never be enough resources."

Even the most ambitious review of job applicants won't necessarily ferret out all of the problems. Many convicted agents have said financial pressures and other personal dilemmas drove them to cross the line. Smugglers often know how to push the right button.

A Border Patrol agent, part of a narcotics and immigrant network in El Paso, explained to a judge last year how smugglers sought to recruit him.

Agent Aldo Erives said the drug dealers knew that he hitchhiked to his classes at a local college.

"Come on," he said they told him, "you can buy a car if you pass a load through the checkpoint."

In the dryer

Sometimes, federal agents initiate the corruption.

In El Paso, Santiago Efrain, an ICE agent assigned to help guard a detention center, allegedly told the lawyer for a jailed Mexican smuggling suspect that for $20,000 he could get the charges dropped and the suspect safely back to Mexico. Efrain allegedly said he normally charged $30,000 for this kind of favor but was willing to cut a deal.

The Mexican lawyer alerted U.S. authorities, who sent an undercover agent to meet with Efrain at the local Starbucks. Efrain, wearing his duty uniform, allegedly accepted the $20,000 and was promptly arrested. He is awaiting trial.

Also yet to go to trial is David Duque Jr., a Border Patrol agent in Falfurrias, Texas, north of McAllen. He is charged with bribery for allegedly advising a government informant how to package cocaine in order to get it past the police dogs at the border checkpoints. He asked for $2,500 for every kilogram of cocaine that got through, authorities say.

According to the indictment, Duque instructed that payment should be left in his clothes dryer.

"Law enforcement officials have confirmed that Duque has a dryer located outside his residence on the porch," the indictment duly noted.

In his own words

Julio Alfonso Lopez, 45, former deputy commander of the Laredo Multi-Agency Narcotics Task Force, described to FBI agents in an April 18 affidavit how he was paid off.

"The first time Kiko asked me to tell him where the task force guys were located was in July 2005. I was paid more than $1,000 for not trying to arrest the traffickers."

"The second time … I told Kiko that the area was clear of any task force officers. I was paid more than $1,000 for not trying to arrest or investigate … or seize the cocaine. Cocaine was coming through Zapata."

"The third time Kiko asked for information, I told him that all task force officers were clear of the area. I knew there was at least 20 kilograms of cocaine coming through Zapata. … I met Kiko at the Red Lobster and he gave me at least $3,000."

"The fourth time Kiko said that he had a storage unit that he was going to use to store the cocaine. I did not look for the cocaine, investigate the traffickers or try to arrest them…. I met Kiko at the Pep Boys and he gave me at least $3,000."

"In December 2005 I met the traffickers at the Red Lobster in an attempt to gain their confidence after Kiko told me they wanted to move 200 kilograms of cocaine. … I wanted the traffickers to keep working with me and Kiko. I knew that I could make a lot of money. I have been using cocaine for approximately one year and Kiko supplies me the cocaine."

Sunday, October 22, 2006

French police face 'permanent intifada'

By JAMEY KEATEN, Associated Press Writer

EPINAY-SUR-SEINE, France - On a routine call, three unwitting police officers fell into a trap. A car darted out to block their path, and dozens of hooded youths surged out of the darkness to attack them with stones, bats and tear gas before fleeing. One officer was hospitalized, and no arrests made.

The recent ambush was emblematic of what some officers say has become a near-perpetual and increasingly violent conflict between police and gangs in tough, largely immigrant French neighborhoods that were the scene of a three-week paroxysm of rioting last year.

One small police union claims officers are facing a "permanent intifada." Police injuries have risen in the year since the wave of violence.

National police reported 2,458 cases of violence against officers in the first six months of the year, on pace to top the 4,246 cases recorded for all of 2005 and the 3,842 in 2004. Firefighters and rescue workers have also been targeted — and some now receive police escorts in such areas.

On Sunday, a band of about 30 youths, some wearing masks, forced passengers out of a bus in a southern Paris suburb in broad daylight Sunday, set it on fire, then stoned firefighters who came to the rescue, police said. No one was injured. Two people were arrested, one of them a 13-year-old, according to LCI television.

More broadly, worsening violence in France testifies to Europe's growing struggle to integrate its ethnic minorities. Some mainstream European politicians — adopting positions previously confined largely to far-right fringes — are suggesting that the minorities themselves are not doing enough to adapt to European mores.

In Britain, former Foreign Minister Jack Straw, now leader of the House of Commons, this month touched off a wide debate about the rights and obligations of Muslims by saying that he asks devout Muslim women to remove their veils when visiting his office. Prime Minister Tony Blair said Islam needs to modernize.

In France, a high school teacher received death threats, forcing him into hiding, after he wrote a newspaper editorial in September saying Muslim fundamentalists are trying to muzzle Europe's democratic liberties.

Ethnic integration and violence against police are both becoming issues in the campaign for the French presidency. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the leading contender on the right, said this month that those who do not love France do not have to stay, echoing a longtime slogan of the extreme-right National Front: "France, love it or leave it."

Michel Thooris, head of the small Action Police union, claims that the new violence is taking on an Islamic fundamentalist tinge.

"Many youths, many arsonists, many vandals behind the violence do it to cries of 'Allah Akbar' (God is Great) when our police cars are stoned," he said in an interview.

Larger, more mainstream police unions sharply disagree that the suburban unrest has any religious basis. However, they do say that some youth gangs no longer seem content to throw stones or torch cars and instead appear determined to hurt police officers — or worse.

"First, it was a rock here or there. Then it was rocks by the dozen. Now, they're leading operations of an almost military sort to trap us," said Loic Lecouplier, a police union official in the Seine-Saint-Denis region north of Paris. "These are acts of war."

Sadio Sylla, an unemployed mother of three, watched the Oct. 13 ambush of the police patrol in Epinay-sur-Seine from her second-floor window. She, other witnesses and police union officials said up to 50 masked youths surged out from behind trees.

One of the three officers needed 30 stitches to his face after being struck by a rock.

The attack was one of at least four gang beatings of police in Parisian suburbs since Sept. 19. Early Friday, a dozen hooded people hurled stones, iron bars and bottles filled with gasoline at two police vehicles in Aulnay-sous-Bois, a flashpoint of last year's riots, said Guillaume Godet, a city hall spokesman. One officer required three stitches to his head.

Minority youths have long complained that police are more heavy-handed in their dealings with them than with whites, demanding their papers and frisking them for no apparent reason.

Such perceived ill-treatment fuels feelings of injustice, as do the difficulties that many youths from immigrant families have finding work.

Distrust and tension thrive. Rumors have flown around some housing projects that police are hoping to use the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends this week, to round up known troublemakers, on the basis that fasting all day will have made the youths weaker and easier to catch.

Police say that suggestion is ludicrous. However, they are on guard ahead of the first anniversary this week of last year's riots. That violence began after two youths who thought police were chasing them hid in a power substation and were electrocuted to death.

Police unions suspect that the recent attacks may be an attempt to spark new riots.

"We are getting the impression these youths want a 'remake' of what happened last year," said Fred Lagache, national secretary of the Alliance police union. "The youths are trying to cause a police error to justify chaos."

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Gang beheadings common in central Mexico


Associated Press Writer


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."