September 12, 2008 / 4:00 PM / 11 years ago

Brutal crime wave shakes Mexico to the core

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A gruesome crime wave is shaking Mexico to its core, with children murdered, headless bodies left in piles and ordinary Mexicans losing the little faith they have in the police and government.

While violent crime has long been rampant in Mexico, a spate of recent killings have gone beyond anything seen before as drug smugglers slaughter rivals and common criminals, often helped by corrupt police, turn more brutal.

Hitmen from the Gulf cartel drug gang left a pile of 11 headless corpses piled up near the city of Merida and police say the victims were likely still alive when decapitated.

Drug gunmen killed 13 people including a baby and a university professor at a party in the picturesque tourist town of Creel, breaking a taboo against killing children.

“You are seeing a deterioration, and a very drastic and violent terrorizing factor,” said Fred Burton, an analyst for the U.S.-based Stratfor security consultancy.

President Felipe Calderon, a strong-willed conservative, made the fight against crime his top priority when he came to office in 2006 but drug murders have soared to a record 2,700 so far this year in a war between gangs.

August was the bloodiest month in three years of clashes that began when Mexico’s most-wanted man Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman took on rival traffickers for control of smuggling routes. About 450 people were killed last month, most of them in the border states of Chihuahua and Baja California.

Natividad Gonzalez, governor of the northern state of Nuevo Leon, warned last week that drug gangs were holding greater sway over town and village authorities, threatening a “collapse of the basic government structure in our country.”

Calderon is now under pressure to crack down after 150,000 people marched through Mexico City in an anti-crime protest and his National Action Party may suffer at mid-term legislative elections next year.

Even crime-hardened Mexicans were shocked by the kidnapping and murder of a 14-year-old boy whose body was found on August 1 in the trunk of a car in Mexico City despite his father paying a ransom.

DESPERATION

Increasing numbers of people are asking for protection against armed robbery and kidnapping at a shrine to Saint Sharbel, said to help desperate causes, at a church in the capital’s middle class area of Polanco.

“Terrible crime is the main worry in our country today,” housewife Francisca Hernandez, 53, said at the shrine this week. “I come to pray for my children, who have to go out to the street to work every day,” said Hernandez. Her daughter was robbed gunpoint on a bus recently.

Mexican drug gangs have yet to launch major terror attacks like Colombian traffickers who murdered 107 people in bombing a commercial airliner in 1989, and killed over 60 more in a car bomb attack on the headquarters of the DAS security police.

But Stratfor’s Burton said Mexico’s Sinaloa and Gulf cartels probably have the necessary weapons, communications and intelligence to launch spectacular attacks in retaliation for Calderon sending thousands of troops against them.

“Could you see them placing a large car bomb next and start killing a lot of people or start killing elected officials including Calderon himself and the attorney general?” he said. “It’s not a bold leap, especially with the kind of money and resources they have.”

Calderon, state governors and the mayor of Mexico City held a summit last month and agreed on a long list of anti-crime measures but many of their promises, like a vow to rid Mexico’s underpaid police forces of corrupt cops, are not new.

Calderon is coming under fire for the crime wave although his popularity rating is still high at above 60 percent.

Local and state governments are also facing much of the blame. Voter disapproval of Mexico City’s leftist mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, a possible presidential candidate in 2012, rose to 45 percent from 37 percent in June mostly due to his failure to reduce crime, a poll in the Reforma newspaper showed this week.

“There is mistrust of the police mostly but also of the political class in general,” said human rights worker Victor Clarke Alfaro in the violent northern city of Tijuana near the U.S. border.

The opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for 71 years until 2000, may pick up votes in next year’s elections, said political analyst Ana Laura Magaloni.

Calderon’s anti-crime plan seems unclear to many people, she said. “As long as it’s not clarified then voters are going to reject that and give an advantage to the PRI,” she said.

Editing by Kieran Murray

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