Pubdate: Wed, 11 Jun 2008
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2008 Los Angeles Times
Author: Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Mexico Under Siege


In case decapitating their victims and dumping the heads in picnic
coolers didn't make the point, the killers left a note.

"This is a warning," it said, listing an alphabet soup of Mexican
police agencies and the noms de guerre of several well-known drug
figures. "You get what you deserve."

The message, scrawled on a poster in black ink, accompanied four
severed human heads that Mexican authorities recently found on a
highway in the northern state of Durango.

The same day, police in neighboring Chihuahua state came upon five
swaddled bodies accompanied by a hand-lettered placard.

"This is what happens to stupid traitors who take sides with Chapo
Guzman," said the message found in Ciudad Juarez, referring to Joaquin
"Shorty" Guzman, the supposed leader of the main drug gang in adjacent
Sinaloa state.

The killers closed with incongruous propriety: "Yours truly," they
signed off, "La Linea."

Amid a wave of drug-related violence across Mexico, the dead these
days are frequently accompanied by macabre calling cards known
popularly as "narco-messages."

Part threat and part boast, the messages have multiplied as drug
killings have risen to record levels amid a government crackdown on
organized crime and deadly turf wars among traffickers.

Written by hand and often with grammatical errors, the notes are
frequently publicized in Mexican news reports and on the Internet,
allowing drug gangs to deliver their fearsome messages to enemies and
society at large. The messages can even serve as a conversation
between rivals.

Five days after police in Durango discovered the severed heads, they
found another head, also with a message. It was an apparent answer to
the earlier killings.

"We too can respond," the note said, according to Mexican news

Analysts and law enforcement officials view the messages as a version
of wartime psychological operations, lending medieval-style brutality
a touch of 21st century media savvy.

"I'm the boss of this turf," read a banner in Sinaloa bearing the name
of Arturo Beltran, whose faction is battling Guzman's. "And this is
the beginning."

Grisly death has long been part of Mexico's illicit drug trade. But
the frequency and brazenness of the narco-messages, including videos
and photos of executions posted on YouTube, are a further sign that
the violence has grown more savage.

"You didn't see that kind of stuff 13 years ago," said a senior U.S.
counter-narcotics official. "It's more in-your-face."

Such was the case in Tijuana in April when rival factions of the
Arellano Felix drug gang engaged in a wild gun battle that left 13
gunmen dead.

One of the bodies that turned up bore three words written on the skin
in marker: "Traidor, Enemigo, Objetivo," or "Traitor, Enemy, Target."
The first letters of the three Spanish words spelled "Teo," the
nickname of Teodoro Garcia Simental, leader of one of the warring factions.

In Sinaloa state, site of a violent conflict between Guzman and former
allies led by Beltran, white cloth banners have been lashed to
overpasses and billboards. The messages, lettered in black and red,
are peppered with the nicknames of key players and frequently too
arcane to follow.

Often, government forces are the target audience. A recent poster
mocked army troops on patrol, calling them "little lead soldiers."

In the border cities of Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa, in the state of
Tamaulipas, neatly painted banners appeared this spring advertising
jobs in the Zetas, one of the country's most fearsome crime groups.

The banners, addressed to "soldiers or ex-soldiers," offered "good
wages, food and help for your family."

It is unclear whether the banners were a genuine recruitment effort by
the Zetas, the armed wing of the so-called Gulf cartel, which operates
along the Texas border. But many Nuevo Laredo residents remain
convinced that the offer was real, underlining the degree to which
Mexicans stand in awe of the reach of drug trafficking

"It does little good that the armed forces have more firepower than
the drug traffickers if the federal government adopts a passive
attitude before the psychological operations of organized crime,"
columnist Jorge Luis Sierra wrote in El Universal newspaper.

Many residents of Ciudad Juarez stayed indoors on a recent weekend
after a widely circulated e-mail warned that the city was about to
endure its "bloodiest" weekend yet.

It is unknown whether the threat was real: Authorities reported 17
people dead around Ciudad Juarez in separate incidents over three
days, a rate not out of line with the norm since the killings surged
early this year.

Ciudad Juarez residents have reason to take anonymous warnings
seriously. In January, someone threatened city police by posting the
names of 17 officers on a monument to fallen officers. Three of those
listed were already dead.

By mid-May, about half of those listed had been killed, including the
city's No. 2 police official, who was peppered with automatic-weapons
fire one night as he returned home.

The messages keep on coming. Late last month, two hand-scrawled
banners appeared in the Chihuahua state capital, also called
Chihuahua. Signed by a group calling itself Gente Nueva, or New
People, the banners listed the names of 21 state police officers.

The threat needed no elaboration.