Brutal drug violence stalks mayors in Mexico

By Anne-Marie O'Connor and William Booth
Sunday, October 3, 2010

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."

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