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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