The two most important criminal organizations in Mexico are engaged in all-out war, and the most spectacular battles are being fought for the cameras as the combatants pursue a strategy of intimidation and propaganda by dumping ever greater numbers of headless bodies in public view — some of the victims most likely innocents.

With the groups no longer limiting themselves to regional skirmishes, the older, established drug-smuggling Sinaloa cartel is now fighting the brash, young paramilitary Zetas crime organization across multiple front lines in Mexico in a desperate battle, according to U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials and security analysts on both sides of the border.

As the number of total homicides in Mexico has been slowly dropping, the sensational violence spikes higher, creating an atmosphere of instability that makes Mexicans and American visitors fear travel in wide stretches of country that even Mexican military leaders concede are not completely under state control.

The two gangs and their surrogates continue to quietly kill each other, but they are also staging public massacres in order to terrify civilians, cow authorities and taunt outgoing President Felipe Calderon, who has made his U.S.-
backed confrontation with the cartels a centerpiece of his administration.

“What was once viewed as extreme is now normal. So these gangs must find new extremes. And the only real limit is their imagination, and you do not want to know what is the limit of psychopaths,” said Alejandro Hope, a security analyst with the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, a nonpartisan think tank.

In the past month alone, in what authorities describe as a gruesome version of text messaging, the two criminal groups and their allies deposited 14 headless bodies in front of the city hall in the border community of Nuevo Laredo and hanged nine people, including four women, from a bridge in the same city.

They have left 18 dismembered bodies in vans near Lake Chapala, an area frequented by tourists and U.S. retirees outside Guadalajara. They used a dump truck to unload 49 more corpses, missing not only heads but also feet and hands, outside Monterrey, Mexico’s main industrial city.

To guarantee the widest possible audience, they posted a video of themselves dumping the bodies, plus a banner: “Gulf cartel, Sinaloa cartel, marines and soldiers, nobody can do anything against us or they will lose . . . 

It was signed with names of Zeta leaders.

“We’ve had over recent weeks these despicable inhuman acts in different parts of the country that are part of an irrational struggle mainly between two of the existing criminal organizations and their criminal allies,” said Mexico’s interior minister, Alejandro Poire.

Fighting among Mexican crime gangs is nothing new. What is new: the Sinaloa cartel creating alliances with former competitors — the Gulf cartel, the remnants of the Arellano Felix brothers in Tijuana, new elements of Michoacan’s La Familia gang — to beat back the ascendent Zetas and their allies, in what one security analyst compared to a narco-version of World War III.

‘Psychopathology at work’

Many of the victims have not been identified, and in the case of the 49 decapitated corpses, the heads have not been recovered. It appears likely that the victims were not members of the warring groups but street criminals, addicts, civilians, or migrants passing through on their way to the United States.

(The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

“The killings are done to draw a response from the media, from the government, to bring in the military. So these victims, they are not members of the organizations. They are just random guys. All the evidence suggests this,” said Jorge Chabat of the Center for Research and Teaching on Economics, an expert on the drug trade.

“They have never been very careful about who they kill,” Chabat said. “They just kill.”

For the past few months, based on wiretaps, intelligence from informants and arrests, U.S. and Mexican law enforcement agents say they have been watching the Zetas make incursions deep into the Sinaloa cartel’s traditional territories — even in Sierra Madre towns such as Badiraguato and Choix, once thought of as impregnable strongholds for Sinaloa’s leader, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the most-wanted man in Mexico.

The motivation behind the massacres? “These acts show force. They tell the world, the government, their opponents, that ‘I am alive! You have not defeated me. I still am here.’ They show muscle,” said Martin Barron, an expert on security at the National Institute of Criminal Justice.

“Now why have things gone so far? Such brutality? Why cut off the heads, hands and feet? Previously, these organizations settled matters with a bullet in the head. Not anymore,” Barron said. “Now there is a psychopathology at work. Some of these people obviously enjoy this, and they are teaching their surrogates, teenagers, to enjoy it.”

To bolster their defense of regions they control, and to destabilize their opponents, both groups have taken the fight to the other’s territory. Part of this strategy is to “heat up the plaza” — a plaza being a city or town where a criminal group controls corrupt officials and police as well as smuggling routes, a network of safe houses, armories of stashed weapons, and teams dedicated to spying, collecting money and killing.

By heating up a plaza, the warring sides hope to bring in a forceful response by the authorities — sending in the army or marines, who round up local crime cells and put pressure on the dominant group.

The assassins almost always leave “narcomantas,” neatly printed manifestoes full of expletives and obscure rants that claim authorship for the killing.

Sometimes the manifestoes are accurate; other times they are designed to confuse. In the case of the 49 mutilated bodies left last week outside Monterrey, the Zetas first asserted responsibility, then denied it in other banners hung across the state, then finally claimed the killings, perhaps reluctantly, when Mexican military forces arrested Daniel Elizondo, alias “The Madman,” a leader of the local Zetas cell.

Elizondo told authorities that he had been ordered by the Zeta leadership to dump the bodies in the center of Cadereyta, an industrial town on the outskirts of Monterrey, but that he became frightened and put them on the highway leading outside of town.

Lack of public trials

There is no way to know whether Elizondo’s confession was true or made under duress. Those arrested for massacres are never tried in open court, the records are almost impossible to obtain, and most are never put before a judge but sent to jail and eventually released. Mexico’s prosecution rate for homicides is low.

U.S. law enforcement and Mexican analysts say the outbreak of war is not designed to directly influence the July 1 presidential election.

But front-runner Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which hopes to return to power after 12 years, has stressed that he is more interested in lowering violence than in fighting drug trafficking.

This would put Peña Nieto squarely against the Zetas, who specialize more in carjacking, kidnapping, extortion and smuggling migrants than in smuggling cocaine and marijuana.

Researcher Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.