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CANCUN, Mexico (Reuters) - The beheadings of twelve people in southern Mexico were probably the work of the powerful Gulf cartel based across the border from Texas, a state governor said on Friday.
Eleven beheaded bodies with signs of torture were dumped outside the city of Merida in the Yucatan Peninsula on Thursday. A 12th beheaded body was found 50 miles away in a small town to the east of Merida, also showing signs of torture.
"This seems to be the work of the Gulf cartel," Yucatan Gov. Ivonne Ortega told reporters, adding that she had received several threats from suspected drug gangs over the past three months.
Authorities say the cartel controls drug smuggling in seven states along the Gulf of Mexico from southern Mexico into Texas.
"We will have to see where the heads turn up. I am sure they will try something spectacular to shock society," she said.
Three armed men were arrested on Friday after ignoring instructions to stop at a police checkpoint on the road between Merida and the popular Caribbean beach resort of Cancun, federal police said.
The men fired shots at the checkpoint and police gave chase and captured and detained them on a dirt track. Inside the vehicle, police said they found three guns, an axe and more than 500 rounds of ammunition.
The checkpoint had been set up because of the beheadings, although police did not say if the men arrested were suspected of being involved in the grisly killings.
Investigators said the victims were drug dealers and all 12 had their heads cut off while they were still alive, reported the Reforma newspaper.
The bodies had tattoos, mainly of "Saint Death," a ghoulish grim reaper figure that gangsters believe protects them, Ortega said. Police said the bodies had the letter "Z" tattooed on them.
The Gulf cartel's feared armed wing, the Zetas, were among the first hit men to start beheading victims two years ago when Mexico's drug war flared.
In 2006, drug traffickers rolled several heads onto the floor of a nightclub in Michoacan state in a blunt message to rivals and the government.
President Felipe Calderon has made crushing drug gangs a top priority, sending troops across the country in an attempt to restore law and order.
But drug violence has only spiraled, with more than 2,300 people killed this year, as rival gangs fight each other and the army. Endemic police corruption has further complicated efforts to rid Mexico of cartels.
The United States has approved $465 million to help Mexico and Central America battle drug cartels.
Reporting by Jose Cortazar and Chris Aspin; editing by Todd Eastham