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Mexico's mayors becoming casualties of drug wars; many towns without leaders

Rival mafias fighting to control drug sales, marijuana and poppy fields, meth labs and lucrative smuggling routes are targeting local officials.

Juan Jose Alejo Guerrero, commander of the state police in Tancitaro, blames "organized crime" for the violence. "This is a dispute for the plaza of Tancitaro," he said, using the term for an area controlled by one mafia or another. "This is happening in towns all over Mexico."

Alejo Guerrero added: "This is a small municipality. It is a very tranquil place. There's nothing else here except avocado orchards."

Shadow of drug violence

But drugs are also here. Two weeks ago, the Mexican army raided a clandestine meth lab in the hills outside the municipality. Marijuana and poppy plantations are hidden in the mountains, their illicit crops frequently burned by the military at the urging of the U.S. government. Asked which groups were fighting for control of the area, the police commander said, "Who knows?"

The Michoacan attorney general told reporters that Sanchez's killing is being investigated as a possible robbery, because of "the unusual circumstances." Instead of binding, gagging and shooting him at close range, his killers appeared to have bashed his head in with rocks. Few people here give credence to the robbery theory.

A drug counselor who works with meth addicts in the area spoke on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns. The counselor said the killings represented an attempt by an ascendant paramilitary criminal organization called the Zetas to unseat the hyperviolent regional drug organization known as La Familia, which he said had long controlled the Tancitaro area. The Zetas "do not want government," the counselor said.

Four members of the current town council said when asked that they didn't know whether they would remain in office.

Rosario Rico, a councilwoman, is worried about the delivery of services. Elderly residents who live in rural areas were called into town Sunday to receive federal assistance. But when they arrived Monday, the discovery of Sanchez's killing had created an uproar, and there was nothing to give them.

"We think the people are the biggest losers," Rico said.

"The reality is that none of us know how the city hall will continue functioning," another local official said.

Town officials said Margarita Soriano Pantoja was next in line to be named mayor. But in an interview, she said she had not volunteered for the post.

"The risk exists, but someone needs to take the job," Soriano said. "We will propose someone to serve while the state congress decides. But we are all wondering who."

Researcher Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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