Police Beheadings Reflect Drug War
Tijuana, Mexico - The caller painted an ominous scene: A convoy of 40 vehicles filled with 70 heavily armed and masked men, witnesses said, was prowling the streets of Rosarito Beach. Three police officers responded to the quiet neighborhood and were quickly abducted. A day later, their mutilated bodies turned up in an empty lot.
Their heads were found in the Tijuana River.
The attack was the latest in a series of paramilitary-style operations that have plagued Mexican cities as warring drug cartels escalate their battles to control key smuggling routes.
With Mexican authorities relying more heavily on the military to combat drug smuggling, traffickers have responded in kind, forming large forces of assailants and arming them with frightening arrays of weaponry.
Nearly two dozen heavily armed gunmen in April tried to assassinate Baja California's top-ranking public safety official in a wild shootout on a Mexicali street. The attackers launched grenades and fired more than 600 rounds, wounding three bodyguards.
Over the past year, commando-style raids have been regular occurrences in Tijuana, with convoys of masked gunmen snatching victims from restaurants and street corners in brazen daylight raids.
"It's a disturbing manifestation of latest drug war frenzy. ... The militarization of the drug war in many ways on the side of law enforcement has corresponded with the militarization of tactics and personnel on the criminal side," said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego.
The situation, Shirk added, "has heightened the competition and raised the stakes in a way that has led to extreme violence, at a level we have not seen before in Mexico."
In Nuevo Laredo, on the Texas border, a raging turf war between the Gulf Cartel and Sinaloa drug gangs has killed more than 230 people in the last 18 months.
The defection of a military commando unit, the Zetas, to the Gulf cartel in the late 1990s became the model for military-style assaults, experts say. Federal officials say they killed or captured the original group, but they say they believe jailed Gulf cartel leader Osiel Cardenas still had at least 120 cadres trained by the Zetas at his command as recently as last August, and was using them increasingly to battle the rival cartel led by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
But the violence is not limited to cities along the U.S.-Mexico order. In Apatzingan, in the central state of Michoacan, last Aug. 18, four men were killed and a policeman and four bystanders wounded in a shootout between rival drug gangs that involved dozens of paramilitary gunmen in 10 vehicles.
Two weeks earlier, police in nearby Uruapan, also in Michoacan, had arrested a group of 10 alleged drug gang members armed with 50-millimeter rifles, AK-47s and AR-15s.
Cartels also are using increasingly brutal methods to intimidate their enemies. The Rosarito Beach beheadings followed the decapitation in April of a police commander in Acapulco, whose head was found in a public plaza.
Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, the top organized crime prosecutor in the Mexican attorney general's office, has taken over the investigation of the Baja California beheadings. In an interview for Friday's editions of the Mexico City newspaper El Universal, Santiago said the abductions and beheadings were characteristic of the brutal Central America-based Mara Salvatrucha gang, which has become increasingly involved in the Mexican drug trade in recent years.
"Acts like the ones we have just seen are manifestations of groups related to the Maras," he said. "We have seen the phenomenon of decapitation in El Salvador, a brutal act of intimidation that is occurring here as (Mexican) drug gangs are worn down and resort to recruiting this kind of group."
Jeffrey McIllwain, a criminal justice professor at California State University, San Diego, who studies border security issues, believes the violence is a sign that pressure from law enforcement is affecting the cartels' bottom line.
"The fact is that it has hurt operations, severely in some cases ... so it makes sense that the cartels would step up their game," McIllwain said.
In Baja California, the crime wave could signal an escalation of the fierce war to control the lucrative Tijuana smuggling corridor, which has been traditionally controlled by the Arellano-Felix Cartel. Several top-ranking members of the cartel have been killed or arrested in recent years, and other cartels may be sensing weakness, say experts.
Some recent attacks were shocking for their audacity, say experts. Last month, three men armed with AK-47s stormed into an office of the Mexican Federal Attorney's office in Tijuana and shot two agents, killing one. In December, assailants attacked the Tijuana home of a state police commander, killing two of his bodyguards. In October, Tijuana's chief of homicides narrowly escaped an attack by assailants who fired more than 50 bullets at his car.
"It's a more aggressive form of violence, with new ingredients," said Victor Clark, a border expert and director of Tijuana's Binational Center for Human Rights.
By Richard Marosi