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Surge in Violence Shocks Even Weary Mexico
Drug Killings Nearly Doubled In Past Year

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.

Meanwhile, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the former Mexico City mayor who was narrowly defeated in a hotly contested presidential election in July, has announced the creation of a parallel government and inaugurated himself president. Lawmakers from his Democratic Revolutionary Party have said they will try to disrupt the inauguration ceremony of President-elect Felipe Calderón on Friday.

The upheaval may be an unintended consequence of Mexico's seismic political shift away from the autocratic 71-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which lost power in 2000, said Jorge Montaño, a Mexican political analyst who was ambassador to the United States and to the United Nations. President Vicente Fox's National Action Party has greatly improved government transparency and hastened the evolution of Mexico's democracy, but it has also struggled to maintain order and improve Mexico's criminal justice system.

"We moved very quickly from a government that was too tough to a government that has lost control," Montaño said.

The PRI was known for repressing public dissent in the name of order and as a way to keep itself in power. Fox's government, on the other hand, did little over the past four months to block the huge post-election demonstrations by López Obrador supporters that shackled Mexico City, protests that surely would have been quashed by the PRI.

The differences are even starker in the drug war, observers say. The PRI was known for negotiating with drug cartels, a practice that often corrupted officials but may have lessened violence.

"In the old days there were rules. We'd say, 'You can't kill the police. If you kill the police, we'll send in the army,' " said a former high-ranking PRI official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We'd say, 'You can't steal 30 Jeep Cherokees a month; you can only steal five.' "

Fox has sought to limit corruption and has declared "the mother of all battles" against drugs and jailed several of the country's most notorious drug lords. But the underworld power struggles that followed have been unspeakably violent, particularly since the arrests in 2001 and 2003 of the leaders of Mexico's two most powerful drug gangs, the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels.

The killings, once mainly confined to the lucrative smuggling routes near the U.S. border, such as Nuevo Laredo, have spread down Mexico's long coastlines.

"The level of public security has dropped considerably," said Gustavo González Báez, a security consultant and former high-ranking federal prosecutor.

González Báez's clients travel in expensive, protective bubbles. To ward off kidnappers, a CEO routinely spends $40,000 on bodyguards and bulletproof vehicles for a two-day visit to Mexico City, he said.

Citizen Security, an influential private group that pushes for reforms in the judicial system, recently issued a report blaming the insecurity on a "criminal justice system [that] does not punish offenders."

In Guerrero, a southern Mexican state best known for its Acapulco resorts, drug killings have ballooned from 32 at this point last year to 281, according to Salinas Altés, the public security director. Only a handful of those murders have been solved because of "a high level of police corruption," he said.

Here along the stunning beaches of Zihuatanejo, a three-hour drive north of Acapulco, news of the almost daily slaughter in nearby towns invariably generates banner headlines and graphic photographs in the newspaper Despertar de la Costa. The paper's owner and guiding editorial light, Misael Tamayo Hernández, may himself have recently become a victim of the violence he chronicled.

Tamayo Hernández, known as workaholic family man, was found Nov. 10 naked and dead in a cheap roadside motel room. That day, a Tijuana police chief was shot to death. A headline in the Mexico City newspaper El Universal called it "A Normal Day in the Country," and in an editorial, the paper lamented that "bit by bit, murder by murder, the country is winning an international reputation for danger."

A medical examiner later declared that Tamayo Hernández died of a heart attack, but few here accept that conclusion, particularly because the editor was known to have disputes with drug dealers about his paper's coverage. Also, Tamayo Hernández's breakfast companion on the day of his death -- a prominent local businessman -- has disappeared. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one of Tamayo Hernández's relatives said in an interview that family members had suspicions of foul play but were keeping quiet for fear of reprisals.

Sauzo, the father of the young man who was dismembered in Zihuatanejo, was a devoted reader of Tamayo Hernández's paper. His collection of gory articles has become a unique form of catharsis. But he found out about his own son's death while watching television. He went to a country road to identify his boy, whose hacked-apart body had been left in five black garbage bags.

The funeral home wanted to cremate him. But Sauzo and his wife insisted on placing their son's remains in a coffin and bringing him home for the traditional ritual of sleeping in candlelight next to their lost loved one.

During those days of mourning, the phone rang constantly. It was the men who killed their son, asking where they could find his girlfriend, presumably to do the same to her. Gomez, the grieving mother, didn't call police. She just changed her phone number and prayed.

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