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

By Anne-Marie O'Connor and William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 3, 2010; 4:10 AM

TANCITARO, MEXICO - Gustavo Sanchez worked hard in this Mexican farming town at one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. He was a mayor. Last weekend, Sanchez and a town councilman disappeared. Their bodies were found Monday, the skulls smashed open in the fifth killing of a mayor in six weeks.

According to supporters at city hall, Sanchez was honest and brave. Less than a year ago, the 36-year-old schoolteacher and martial-arts instructor agreed to lead this prosperous western community after the previous mayor abruptly quit, citing threats by drug traffickers, and took the entire town council with him.

Sanchez's short political career ended on the side of a muddy, lonely road, his handsome, mustachioed face unrecognizable. His mutilated colleague Rafael Equihua lay dead beside him.

At least 11 mayors have been killed this year across Mexico, as a spooky sense of permanent siege takes hold in the many communities where rival mafias fight for control of local drug sales, marijuana and poppy fields, methamphetamine labs and billion-dollar smuggling routes to the United States.

In recent months, one mayor was killed by masked gunmen who stormed city hall. One was dragged out of his home and later executed, allegedly by renegade members of his own municipal police force. Another was shot in a restaurant by men wielding AK-47 assault rifles.

More than 100 mayors have been threatened, kidnapped, shot at or subjected to extortion in the past two years, according to Ramon Galindo Noriega, a senator and head of a congressional commission that supports municipal governments. The number is actually far higher, Galindo Noriega said, but many go unreported because of fears that a police investigation would only make matters worse.

The threats and killings targeting city halls have left many towns without candidates for office, forcing state governments to appoint caretaker administrators. The result, observers say, is a civil society at risk. In most of Mexico, city halls are the people's main contact with the state. When local governments become paralyzed, schools go unbuilt, potholes unfilled, and economic and social development programs grind to a halt.

'A psychosis of fear'

Tancitaro does not seem a likely node for the vicious drug wars that have left tens of thousands of Mexicans dead in the past four years. Nestled high in pine forests at the foot of a sacred volcano in the western state of Michoacan, the municipality of 26,000 promotes itself as "the world avocado capital."

But its sleepy appearance belies a recent spasm of violence. Last year, the town secretary was kidnapped, tortured and killed. In the nearby village of Pareo, six policemen were ambushed and executed. Officials say that doctors and nurses have refused assignments to the area following attacks on health workers. In March 2009, masked gunmen stopped an ambulance in Tancitaro and ordered its doctor and nurse to treat wounded colleagues.

In December, after the former mayor and town council resigned, Sanchez fired the municipality's 60-strong police force, on the grounds that it was too corrupt to salvage. One local newspaper columnist called his killing this week a "chronicle of a death foretold."

"It's sad and painful," said Martin Urbina, the current town secretary. "People are very nervous. We are trying to stay on track. When something like this happens in a community, there is a collective psychosis. A psychosis of fear. I don't know if I am staying or leaving."

Sanchez was "very beloved," Urbina said. "He was charismatic, honest. He loved to help the people."

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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