Masked gunmen burst into a nightclub in the west-central Mexican state of Michoacan late on the night of Sept. 4 and flung five human heads onto the dance floor. The “Light and Shadow” club in the city of Uruapan was packed when the men stormed in and ordered clients onto the floor, state police said. Then they pulled the bloody heads from plastic bags and tossed them into the horrified crowd.
The assailants—some wearing police uniforms—also left a message scrawled on a cardboard placard: “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 gory incident brought to at least 13 the number of people decapitated so far this year in Michoacan, torn by an increasingly violent turf war between rival cartels. Nationwide, drug violence this year has claimed a record 1,500 lives, including over 300 in Michoacan.
“Mexico is witnessing extreme violence like we’ve never seen before,” said Mexico’s drug czar Santiago Vasconcelos.
“If current murder rates continue, the body count will equal or surpass the figure for 2005,” the US-based Frontera NorteSur news service wrote Sept. 3. “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.”
Michoacan: the new Colombia?
Michoacan, with just 4 million residents, now ranks third in the number of victims behind the border states of Baja California and Tamaulipas. “Michoacan is looking like Medellin and Cali in the worst of times,” said writer Homero Aridjis, a native of the state.
In August, 24 municipal police officers from the town of Apatzingan were indicted on charges of conspiring with the Gulf cartel, whose bloody rivalry with the Sinaloa cartel is blamed for much of the violence nationwide.
Marco Antonio Gonzalez, mayor of the cattle town of Tepalcatepec, where four severed heads were recently found hanging on a roadside cross, recently joined with prominent residents to buy out a full-page ad in a local newspaper pleading for more federal police and soldiers to combat the traffickers.
The wave of beheadings in Tepalcatepec began after the tortured body of a suspected cartel hit man turned up in July five miles outside of the town. Police say gang members erected the cross in his honor and then took revenge by beheading their rivals and dumping their heads at the site.
Mexican officials admit 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 boasted in an interview. But these figurative capitations have sparked an internecine war for control of the lucrative Mexican drug trade.
Vasconcelos also argued that the US government was partly to blame for failing to stop the flow of illegal weapons across the southern border. “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.” (Marion Lloyd for the Houston Chronicle, Sept. 7)
Struggle for narco-supremacy
The most prominent recent arrest was that of Francisco Javier Arellano Felix, AKA “the Wildcat”, reputed head of the Tijuana cartel. He was taken into custody by the US Coast Guard aboard a US-registered fishing boat, the Dock Holiday, in international waters about 15 miles off the Baja peninsula Aug. 16. He was wanted on a 2003 US indictment that charged him with conspiracy, smuggling and murder. At its height in the late 1990s, the Tijuana cartel was believed to be responsible for supplying nearly half the cocaine sold in the United States.
US and Mexican authorities blame the cartel for at least a score of slayings of police officers, journalists and rivals, as well as the (supposedly) accidental killing of Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo at the Guadalajara airport in 1993. Francisco J. Ortiz Franco, an editor at Tijuana’s crusading weekly newspaper Zeta, was killed two years ago after a series of stories on the cartel.
Arellano Felix faces life in prison if convicted on charges related to the cartel’s alleged purchase of tons of cocaine from Colombia that was smuggled into California through Mexico via tunnels, vehicles, aircraft and backpacks beginning in 1986. The cartel is accused of trading money and weapons for cocaine from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Arellano Felix is “one of the 45 most notorious, most wanted drug traffickers in the world,” said Michael Braun, the DEA’s assistant administrator for operations in Washington. The government is seeking forfeitures from him of nearly $290 million.
Authorities believe the Tijuana cartel built the elaborate 2,400-foot tunnel, discovered in July, that crossed the US border to a San Diego-area warehouse.
Hundreds of killings in Mexico in the last year are linked to the struggle between the Gulf cartel—now allied with the Arellano Felix organization—and a Sinaloa-based group headed by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada. (Sam Enriquez and Greg Krikorian for the Los Angeles Times, Aug. 17)
Terror in Yucatan
On the morning of Sept. 1, attackers tossed two fragmentation grenades into the lobby of the daily Por Esto!, a newspaper run by veteran crusading journalist Mario Menendez Rodriguez in Merida, Yucatan. One of the grenades exploded, splintering the front desk, shattering glass doors, and breaking a time-card clock which now records the hour of the attack: 7:25 AM. Security guards and staff in the adjacent room were wounded by flying shards of glass. The other grenade failed to explode.
It was the third violent attack against Por Esto! reporters in eight days. The perpetrators escaped in a blue Explorer van, later found abandoned near the city’s bus terminal. But the state authorities arrested an anthropology professor and collaborator with the newspaper, Ricardo Delfin Quezada Dominguez of the Autonomous University of Yucatan, and detained him for the crime.
More than two hundred taxi drivers converged to the scene of the crime at the corner of 60th and 73rd Streets near downtown Merida. The drivers union president, Nerio Torres Ortiz told publisher Menendez Rodriguez that his members will patrol the streets around the office and homes of Por Esto!’s journalists, serving as “taxi driver sentinels” to protect them from further attack.
Representatives of dozens of civil organizations-farmers, teachers, unions, churches, and the Democratic Front of Yucatan- also arrived at the newspaper offices and formed a human chain for the length of 60th street between 71st and 73rd to protect the newspaper offices. Many of their placards were directed at Governor Patricio Patron Laviada: “Governor! The police corps are for protecting citizens, not to repress, harm, threaten or beat those who, with their taxes, pay their salaries!”
Subsequently, a special prosecutor from the federal attorney general’s office in Mexico City took the investigation away from Patron Laviada’s state prosecutors. After interviewing the wounded and other eyewitnesses, they ordered the release of professor Ricardo Delfin Quezada Dominguez Sept. 3, citing lack of evidence against him. But the real bombers are still at large, with the apparent protection of Patron Laviada. (Al Giordano for Narco News, Sept. 4)
See our last posts on Mexico, escalating narco violence, and the struggles in Michoacan and Yucatan. Michoacan has also been the scene of violent labor repression this year. As we have noted, official narco corruption has remained entrenched despite the break-up of Mexico’s one-party state since 2000, and proposed solutions for de-escalation such as decriminalization have been nixed by US pressure.