Mexico Drug Cartels Send Message of Chaos, Death

A Mexican soldier escorts a drug suspect arrested this week in Tijuana. Cartels and their cells are fighting police, the army and one another.
A Mexican soldier escorts a drug suspect arrested this week in Tijuana. Cartels and their cells are fighting police, the army and one another. (By Guillermo Arias -- Associated Press)
By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 4, 2008

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 Calderón's war against the traffickers grows more sensational.

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

"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.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company