Pubdate: Tue, 22 Dec 2009
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Page: A24
Copyright: 2009 Los Angeles Times
Author: Ken Ellingwoo, Reporting from Mexico City
Bookmark: (Mexico Under Siege (Series))

Mexico Under Siege


The dead drug lord lay on his back, blood-soaked jeans yanked down to 
the knees. Mexican peso notes carpeted his bullet-torn body, and U.S. 
$100 bills formed neat rows next to his bared belly.

The gory photograph of Arturo Beltran Leyva, one of Mexico's most 
wanted kingpins, was among those widely published here during the 
last few days following his death in a shootout Wednesday with 
Mexican marines in Cuernavaca, capital of the central state of Morelos.

Even in a country where pictures of gruesome crime scenes routinely 
show up on the front pages of newspapers, the Beltran Leyva images 
have stirred controversy over who staged the tableau and whether 
Mexican authorities did so to send a taunting message to the rest of 
his powerful drug trafficking gang.

Several commentators said the photos, some of which showed religious 
jewelry laid across Beltran Leyva's stomach, were evidence that the 
government had adopted the macabre public-relations methods used by 
hit men. Gang members often line their victims' bodies along the 
roadside or hang them from bridges, leaving menacing, handwritten 
messages to scare foes.

The federal government, locked in a violent 3-year-old crackdown on 
drug cartels, has denied any responsibility for the photographs, 
calling the images "pernicious" and "reprehensible."

"The Mexican government fulfills its duty to halt organized-crime 
activity, but it does not get into personal humiliation," Interior 
Minister Fernando Gomez Mont said in a television interview.

But that has not laid the doubts to rest.

"Photographs of a corpse: law or vengeance?" the Excelsior newspaper 
asked in a headline over the weekend.

"The humiliated corpse, with its pants lowered, covered with bloody 
bills in one photo and religious objects in another, showed the 
typical modus operandi of narco-traffickers," security analyst Jorge 
Chabat wrote Monday in El Universal newspaper, which earlier ran a 
version of the photograph on its front page. "The only thing missing 
was a sign saying 'so that you learn to respect' to confirm the 
unmistakable stamp of an act of narco revenge.

"The problem is much deeper: It has to do with the absolute lack of 
democratic culture and respect for human rights in our country."

Among the main questions was who took the time to cover Beltran Leyva 
from neck to knees with blood-smeared bills, apparently to publicize 
the scene. Most of the bills appeared to be 500-peso notes, which are 
worth about $39 each. Another image, taken without the bills, showed 
Beltran Leyva's face disfigured by bullets.

Beltran Leyva, who called himself the "boss of bosses" and headed a 
family-run gang based in the northwestern state of Sinaloa, was 
killed when marines stormed an upscale apartment complex Wednesday. 
Six bodyguards and one commando also died.

Gomez Mont said the marine commandos, who are part of the Mexican 
navy, left the crime scene in the hands of coroner specialists from 
Morelos. He said federal officials would help state authorities try 
to figure out how the photographs were taken and distributed.

Morelos officials said Monday that they had opened an investigation.

El Universal published a series of photographs Sunday showing three 
people in civilian clothes, with faces digitally blurred, lifting 
Beltran Leyva's body by the arms and belted pants. Pictures showed 
gloved hands handling the bloodied bills and then portrayed the body 
covered with them.

The case sparked debate among journalists over newsworthiness of the 
photographs, which were credited to Mexican newspapers and wire 
services. But mainly it had people wondering whether the drug war, 
with 15,000 dead in three years, had both sides adhering to the same 
vicious rules.

"It is the state forces that adopted the basic language of the 
narco," columnist Luis Petersen Farah wrote in the Milenio newspaper. 
" 'There's your money,' the photograph seems to say. It's the language of war." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake