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May 13, 2006 | 00:00 GMT

4 mins read

Beheadings in Mexico: The Foreign Element in Mexico's Drug Wars

On May 8, authorities in the town of Aguaje in Mexico's Michoacan state found the beheaded body of Hector Espinoza, a lawyer whose client had been detained by authorities on suspicion of belonging to a drug cartel. The gruesome discovery came nearly three weeks after two police officers were beheaded in the resort city of Acapulco. Although beheadings bring jihadist groups to mind, these more likely were perpetrated by criminals or militants from elsewhere in Latin America. Espinoza was defending Armando Sanchez Arreguin, an alleged member of an independent drug cartel led by Juan Farías, also known as "the Grandfather." Arreguin was captured after being wounded in a shootout with the rival Millennium cartel. His lawyer's severed head was hung from an archway that serves as one of the entrances to Aguaje. A homemade "welcome" sign was affixed nearby. On April 20, the heads of two police officers were left in front of a government building in Acapulco's La Garita neighborhood, mere blocks from the resort town's tourist strip. A red cardboard sign that read, "So you learn some respect," was taped on the wall nearby. The officers' bodies were found miles away, wrapped in plastic sheeting and duct tape. The killings appear to be revenge for the officers' part in a gunfight some months earlier between police and suspected gang members, in which four suspects were killed. One of the officers was subsequently seen in a video aired on Mexican television, which shows him killing a gang member execution-style during the shootout. Killings of police officers, judges and other officials have become widespread in Mexico, as rival drug cartels battle over turf. The two main combatants are the Gulf cartel, allegedly run from prison by Osiel Cardenas since his arrest in 2003, and the Sinaloa cartel, run by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who escaped from prison in 2001. The Gulf cartel has used a group of former Mexican airborne troops known as "Los Zetas" in its war against the Sinaloa cartel. These well-organized and heavily armed enforcers have a well-deserved reputation for brutality. In addition to the main cartels, smaller cartels and autonomous gangs participate in drug-related violence. The main fronts in the war are Nuevo Laredo and Tijuana, both on the U.S. border. In those cities, police officials have been killed, rival gangs have fought each other with heavy weapons, and U.S. citizens have gone missing. In recent months, however, Acapulco has become increasingly violent as the fighting spreads.
Though killing police officers is not uncommon in Mexico, beheading them is. Mexican gangs have used guns, knives and even grenades and heavy machine guns against the police and each other. Decapitating victims, however, is more consistent with methods used by groups originating in Central America or South America. In parts of El Salvador, Guatemala and other countries south of Mexico, fighting with machetes is taught to boys by their fathers. In South America, Peru's notorious Shining Path militant group often beheaded its victims (among other things). The decidedly "southern" tactic seen in Aguaje and Acapulco indicates that a foreign element has been added to the Mexican cartel wars. It is likely that a gang or cartel operating in the states of Guerrero and Michoacan has brought in other enforcers from Central or South America, possibly former militants or members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang. Acapulco has been a popular — and quite safe — tourist resort since the 1950s. Should the violence continue to escalate however, it will be only a matter of time before a tourist is caught in the crossfire between rival gangs or a gang and police — or becomes the intentional victim of a crime perpetrated by a gang member.

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