MEXICO CITY Mexico has sent soldiers to patrol a suburb of Mexico City for the first time to combat a rise in drug-related violence that is beginning to encroach on the capital.
From late Wednesday, a combined force of around 1,000 soldiers, federal police and local police took to the streets of Nezahualcoyotl on Mexico City's eastern flank, which has suffered from a dispute between two rival drug cartels.
President Felipe Calderon's fight against drug gangs has overshadowed his administration, and the deployment in Nezahualcoyotl brings the conflict into the home state of his successor Enrique Pena Nieto, who takes office in December.
The local government's request for troops in the sprawling municipality in the State of Mexico follows the murder there this weekend of Jaime Serrano, a local state congressman and member of Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
Some Nezahualcoyotl residents told Reuters they had been extorted by criminals identifying themselves as members of the La Familia drug gang.
"Things are getting worse and worse here," said one local man, who asked not to be named. "People here have got used to paying these people (the cartels). If you don't, they say they're going to kill you and your family."
Mexico City and its immediate surroundings have been among the areas least affected by the bloody turf wars between drug gangs and their clashes with security forces, which have killed around 60,000 people over the past six years.
The national death toll from the drug violence has eased somewhat in 2012, according to a tally by newspaper Reforma.
But the bloodletting has crept up in Mexico City and the neighboring State of Mexico, where just over half of the population of the capital's urban area live.
Reforma data showed deaths related to the drug war had reached 550 in the two regions by mid-September, putting the toll on course for a jump of around 15 percent from last year.
Kidnappings in Mexico City and the State of Mexico were also up in the first eight months of 2012, police figures show.
At the heart of the violence in Nezahualcoyotl is a fight for control of a growing market for narcotics and illegal goods between the Zetas and La Familia cartels, said Alberto Islas, a security expert at consultancy Risk Evaluation.
Miguel Angel Mancera, the mayor-elect of Mexico City, told reporters on Thursday he did not expect the security crackdown to send criminals running for cover into the capital, causing what he called a "cockroach effect." The city would take all the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of crime, he said.
However, the reinforcement of Nezahualcoyotl, where more than 1 million people live, was unlikely to yield positive results, Islas said, arguing that the armed forces were not equipped to tackle the sources of the problem.
"The military won't be able to stop the drug-dealing, they won't stop the piracy and they won't stop the impunity that exists in Nezahualcoyotl," he said.
Hours after the patrols began, police found the decapitated bodies of two men in Valle de Chalco, another Mexico City suburb close to Nezahualcoyotl. Earlier this week, officers also found the dismembered bodies of two people there.
(Reporting by Mexico City bureau; writing by Dave Graham; editing by Vicki Allen and Mohammad Zargham)