Surge in Violence Shocks Even Weary Mexico

A policeman patrols the town of Villa Madero in Michoacan state, where six policemen were gunned down this month.
A policeman patrols the town of Villa Madero in Michoacan state, where six policemen were gunned down this month. (By Guillermo Arias -- Associated Press)

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By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 29, 2006

ZIHUATANEJO, Mexico -- Andrés Sauzo collects newspapers, astoundingly grisly newspapers.

There's the one with the close-up shot of a severed human head. There's the one with the wide-angle of a man hacked to death with a machete.

But the worst in his bulky archive of drug-war gore rolled off the presses the day after someone found pieces of what used to be Sauzo's 24-year-old namesake. A hit man had decapitated Sauzo's son, then chopped off his arms and legs. The killer was so unconcerned about being brought to justice that he scrawled his own name and nickname -- "El Barby" -- on a note left with the mutilated corpse.

Still, Sauzo's mother, Cristina Gomez, didn't bother to go to the police. "Why waste my time?" she said in an interview. "This is the way it is in a town without laws."

Gomez's reaction and the audacity of Sauzo's murder -- one of 11 decapitations in the state of Guerrero this year and one of 2,000 killings in a nationwide war between rival drug cartels -- are symptomatic of the unraveling of the rule of law that has plagued Mexico for years.

But in the past year, the number of spectacularly gruesome killings and the intensity of civil unrest have spiked to such alarming levels that even Mexicans who were once hardened by years of violence are shocked.

In flash points across the country, criminals, political groups and the frustrated poor have challenged the authority of institutions, intimidating local officials and spreading fear with little or no worry of legal consequences.

The bulk of the violence is the result of a barbaric, five-year war between Mexican drug cartels -- which are now approaching the strength and size of the notorious Colombian cartels of the 1980s. Drug killings have nearly doubled in the past year; in a single incident this month, six police officers were fatally shot in the troubled state of Michoacan.

But other factors are also contributing to the unrest, including clashes between the rapidly growing class of "micro-dealers," the lower-level street dealers who control neighborhood distribution and feed Mexico's growing ranks of drug consumers.

"We have a huge problem, a problem that exists throughout the country; it's difficult, complicated, dynamic," said Juan Heriberto Salinas Altés, a retired army general who serves as Guerrero state's public security director. "It's something we've never seen before."

While Mexico's government has struggled to contain drug violence, it is also contending with the anger, frustration and increasingly brazen actions of the poor in a country where 40 percent of the population lives in poverty.

In the past few months, a large federal police force has tried, and failed, to corral the armed bandits and hordes of protesters occupying the city of Oaxaca. A handful of bombs apparently placed by groups sympathetic to the Oaxaca protesters have exploded across Mexico City, including one that shredded part of the country's electoral tribunal building.

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