Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

MEXICO: Drug Traffickers Wage War Over Acapulco

Adrián Reyes

MEXICO CITY, Jul 17 2006 (IPS) - The famed international resort city of Acapulco, on the Pacific coast of southern Mexico, has become a battleground in the last few weeks as criminal gangs wage a turf war over control of the illegal drugs trade. Their latest challenge to the authorities was the kidnapping and murder of two members of the military this week.

The victims were a retired army captain who was chief of personal security for the mayor of Acapulco, and a navy lieutenant assigned to military intelligence. They were both abducted early this week by men in black uniforms carrying high-powered weapons.

José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, deputy attorney general for special investigations into organised crime, said efforts are under way to determine whether the murders were committed by a group of hired assassins known as “Los Zetas”, a cell of deserters from the Special Forces Airborne Group, currently in the service of the Gulf cartel, or by another gang known as “Los Pelones”, who work for the Sinaloa cartel of drug traffickers.

Vasconcelos did not rule out involvement by a third group of assassins in the service of the Juárez cartel, as operations by all three drug mafias have been detected in the dispute over control of the drug trade in this ocean resort in Guerrero state.

On Jan. 27, municipal and military police exchanged gunfire with a group of drug traffickers in an area of the city’s outskirts known as La Garita.

Several of the traffickers were killed in the shootout, and later, the severed heads of three police officers who had participated in the confrontation were left at the scene. Macabre messages, signed “Los Zetas”, were attached.

This week’s victims, Eusebio Palacios Ortiz, who was chief bodyguard for the mayor of Acapulco, and navy lieutenant Marcelino Marcelo García, had also participated in the Jan. 27 skirmish, Acapulco judicial authorities admitted.

After the two military men were abducted, tourists were surprised by the unusual activity of navy and army personnel, municipal police and federal agents, who mounted an intensive air and ground search of Acapulco and the surrounding mountain areas.

The search ended Thursday night with the discovery and identification of the two bodies, abandoned in a vehicle parked in a housing complex. The bodies bore signs of torture and the victims’ heads were hooded.

The wave of violence unleashed by the drug traffickers’ fight for control of several retail sales spots is a matter of concern not only to the Mexican authorities, but also to the United States, Mexico’s northern neighbour, according to a recent report, “State of Siege: Drug-Related Violence and Corruption in Mexico,” by the non-governmental Washington Office on Latin America.

This report analyses the strategies recommended for the U.S. administration to support the next president of Mexico in combating the drug gangs’ offensive, including reduction of the demand for illicit drugs in the United States.

The document gives details of the bloodbath attributed to strife between drug gangs and adds that “the violent competition between Mexican drug cartels is largely aimed at one goal – profiting from the robust U.S. illegal drug market.”

On Dec. 1, Mexico will have a new president, although the outcome of the Jul. 2 elections is still uncertain.

The primary count gave governing National Action Party (PAN) candidate Felipe Calderón a lead of barely 0.58 percent of the votes over the Democratic Revolution Party’s (PRD) Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The Electoral Court is at present examining the merits of allegeations of irregularities brought by López Obrador.

“The worst thing that can happen to the people of Guerrero is for them to become accustomed to these high levels of violence. When that happens it’s much harder to get society to join in the fight against crime,” María Elena Morera, national president of the civil society organisation Mexico United Against Crime, told IPS.

She believes that the violence in Acapulco is due to the break-up of the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels, which are fighting over control of the drug trade.

Morera urged state and federal authorities to redouble their efforts to combat organised crime by developing in-depth strategies that are based on a real diagnosis of the situation and not just limited to increasing jail terms for criminals. The police forces have to be purged, because many of them have been infiltrated by the drug traffickers, she said.

She said that a decade ago, Mexico was a transit country for drugs, but now its own people are consuming drugs, and to prevent that, well-designed strategies, an honest police force, and prison laws that do not only increase the penalties, but rehabilitate criminals, are needed.

In Morera’s opinion, some aspects of the violence in Acapulco are worse than the wave of killings perpetrated last year in regions such as Baja California, Tamaulipas and Sinaloa, where victims were shot in the head, execution style. In Acapulco, she said, heads had been severed from bodies, and macabre messages had been left.

When news of the kidnapping of the two members of the armed forces was received, presidential spokesman Rubén Aguilar said that the deeds “are not a national security problem,” but common crimes, which should be dealt with by the local authorities.

For his part, the mayor of Acapulco, Félix Salgado Macedonio, of the PRD, said that he too has received death threats, but that he will respond to the violence with social mobilisation, and called for a peace march on Saturday Jul. 15.

At first, Salgado had attributed the violence to political pressures to deter people from voting on Jul. 2, but although the elections are now over, the abductions and murders continue.

The governor of Guerrero state, Zeferino Torreblanca, also of the PRD, commented recently that the security problem is not confined to that region, and announced the implementation of a national vigilance plan called Operation Secure Mexico, created in June 2005, consisting of army and local police patrols to deter crime.

Meanwhile, José Antonio Ortega Sánchez, president of the non-governmental Citizens’ Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, maintained that these acts of violence confirm that state institutions are no longer able to cope with organised crime.

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