Pubdate: Thu, 4 Dec 2008
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Page: A01, Front Page
Copyright: 2008 The Washington Post Company
Author: William Booth, Washington Post Foreign Service
Bookmark: (Mexico)


MEXICO CITY -- 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.

"There is a new and different violence in this war," said Victor 
Clark Alfaro, the founder of the Binational Center for Human Rights, 
who moves around Tijuana accompanied by bodyguards. "Each method is 
now more brutal, more extreme than the last. To cut off the heads? 
That is now what they like. They are going to the edge of what is 
possible for a human being to do."

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 Calderon's war against the 
traffickers grows more sensational.

An estimated 4,500 people have been killed in drug-related violence 
since 2007, when Calderon 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.

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 Calderon 
will allow the cartels to return to business as usual, when the 
smuggling organizations operated with the tacit support of corrupt officials.

Jorge Luis Aguirre, founder of the border news Web site La Polaka, 
said the cartels are waging a lethal but effective public relations 
war. Last month, Aguirre fled Ciudad Juarez after receiving a death 
threat while driving to the funeral of slain journalist Armando Rodriguez.

"They are making a joke about the authority of the government. All 
the killings and all so public. They are broadcasting that there is 
no government that can stop them. They are geniuses at marketing. 
They commit these spectacular murders. They decapitate people. They 
light people on fire," Aguirre said. "Who is not going to pay 
attention to that?"

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. In Ciudad 
Juarez on Wednesday, a lead federal prosecutor was slain as his car 
idled a few hundred feet from the U.S. border.

"The hyperviolence, the grotesque acts, the decapitations, dumping 
bodies in schoolyards, going after families, this is the work of what 
I call terrorist mafias," said John P. Walters, the White House drug 
policy chief, who pushed for $400 million in U.S. aid to Mexico to 
fight the drug war. The first part of that money was released Wednesday.

Walters said Calderon and his troops are destabilizing the cartels, 
arresting and extraditing their leaders, sowing chaos among the 
ranks, which is one reason the violence is so extreme. "Terror is 
evidence of weakness," he said. "If you have power in other ways, you 
don't do this."

Alberto Capella Ibarra, Tijuana's former police chief, said in a 
radio interview Sunday that he believed the violence "is the 
consequence of so many years of impunity, so many years of 
discomposition of institutions, so many years that we allowed this to 
grow." Capella was fired this week after the deaths in his city.

In the past, many drug lords sought to be portrayed as tough-guy 
Robin Hoods, as godfather mafia dons who donated soccer balls and 
coloring books to schoolchildren and paid for the beer and bands at 
town fiestas. Now the cartels and their enforcers, who include former 
police and military deserters, are marketing themselves as dealers of 
chaos and death.

"This is psychological warfare," said Jorge Chabat, an expert in drug 
trade at the Center for Economic Research in Mexico City. "These 
beheadings serve to stun. Because most of them, from what I hear from 
my sources, take place after the guys are dead. They cut them off to 
show us what they are capable of."

Chabat said, "We're not used to this type of violence. The heads."

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.

"It is three-dimensional chess," said Bruce Bagley, a drug trade 
expert and a professor at the University of Miami. "Where an 
amazingly lucrative drug trade fuels this brutality, that serves 
multiple functions -- for payback, for revenge, to send messages, to 
scare the hell out of the public and, of course, to win. Remember, 
these guys will do anything to win."

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."

Messages also appear to be traded over the Internet. In Ciudad 
Juarez, local crime reporters troll a site on YouTube that hosts a 
music video translated as "Off the Pigs," which shows photos of slain 
police officers and crime scenes, accompanied by a bouncy 
narco-corrido ballad praising Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin "El Chapo" 
Guzman. The video has been watched more than 250,000 times. But what 
the reporters say they are interested in is not the music video 
itself -- a now-common tool for cartels or supporters or wannabe 
singers and gangsters -- but the chat that accompanies it.

"A lot of this is just the usual blah, blah, blah, back and forth, as 
people argue online. But some of it? Some of these people who post 
seem to know what they're talking about. They seem inside," said 
Pedro Torres, editor of El Diario newspaper in Ciudad Juarez, where 
the crime reporter slain last month worked.

"Mexico is a strange country of truths and untruths, where reality 
and conspiracy blend together," said Tony Payan, the author of two 
books on the Mexican drug trade and a professor at the University of 
Texas at El Paso, across the river from Ciudad Juarez. "I am sure 
some of the people committing these sensational crimes have access to 
computers and the Internet, and so it is possible they are boasting online."

Payan added one more reason for the extreme violence. "From what I am 
told, these things occur while they are consuming their product. They 
are not sober. They are operating in a group, they are drugged up, 
and they are operating with a sense of absolute impunity," Payan 
said. "These are not criminals who shoot you and run away. No, they 
take you away and tear you apart. And then? Then they very calmly 
dump you wherever they like. That is what is so terrifying." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake