HOUSTON, TEXAS - The discovery of 49 decapitated and handless corpses on a highway near the city of Monterrey, in Mexico's northern Nuevo Leon state on Sunday, has drawn attention once again to the brutal drug war that has claimed more than 50,000 lives in that Latin American nation during the past six years. Shortly before the discovery in Monterrey, dozens of bodies were found in the border city of Nuevo Laredo and in the central city of Guadalajara.
In Nuevo Leon, authorities are investigating the brutal slaughter of 43 men and six women, whose identities are difficult to establish, according to state public security spokesman Jorge Domene.
None of them have heads, he explains, and the bodies are so mutilated that forensic experts might not be able to establish who they were.
Domene says signs left near the bodies indicate that credit for the mass killing is being claimed by Los Zetas, a paramilitary group that started out a decade ago as part of the Gulf cartel in northeastern Mexico, and then went into drug smuggling on its own.
“In the past, the cartels were largely concerned about doing business," says George Grayson of the College of William and Mary in Virginia, a leading expert on Mexico, who has been following the drug wars closely. "They would kill if they had to, but they were looking at the bottom line. Now comes a group like Los Zetas who seem to relish executing people in the most sadistic, brutal and fiendish fashion.”
For the past few years, the once relatively prosperous and peaceful city of Monterrey has become a war zone between Los Zetas and the powerful Sinaloa cartel, which is run by fugitive Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman.
Analyst George Grayson says people in Monterrey want the return of law and order. Although northern Mexico has often favored the ruling National Action Party, or PAN, Grayson says public opinion surveys show voters there and in many other parts of Mexico might now look to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, to stop the violence.
“People really feel that they are involved in a crisis situation and that is the number one factor that respondents report as to why they will vote for the PRI on July 1,” said Grayson.
The PRI held uninterrupted power in Mexico for more than 70 years until 2000, when PAN candidate Vicente Fox was elected president. He was followed by the PAN's Felipe Calderon, the country's current president. Calderon began his six-year term in December, 2006 by declaring war on organized crime, sending military units to capture or kill major drug cartel figures, something George Grayson says led to more violence.
“Every time you decapitate a cartel, the kingpin's lieutenants engage in a power struggle for dominance," he said. "Moreover, rival criminal organizations then move into the turf of the displaced leader and, finally, the extremely violent gangs begin to act up.”
Grayson notes it will be difficult to curb the violence, no matter who wins the presidential election. He says the new president will have to rely more on developing intelligence and police investigative skills and less on deploying troops around the country.
“I think it is going to be using a more scalpel-like approach and, perhaps, laying aside the broad sword, although he will still need to have the military in place because Mexico does not have an honest police force,” added Grayson.
The corrupting power of illicit drug trade profits has undermined many efforts to professionalize Mexican police forces. The original members of Los Zetas, for example, were from an elite military unit. Experts on Mexico's drug trafficking note that in past years, gangs usually disposed of bodies in clandestine graves, whereas they now hang them from bridges or dump them at busy intersections. They say these gruesome public displays are warnings to rivals and demonstrations that the killers have little fear of being caught and held accountable for their crimes.