MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Suspected drug gang hitmen murdered at least 26 people and dumped their bodies in the center of Mexico’s second city of Guadalajara on Thursday as a showdown between rival drug gangs intensified.
The bodies were found in several vans abandoned around the western city’s iconic Millennium Arches monument, together with a message from drug cartels.
An official with the attorney-general’s office said the death toll could rise beyond the 26 confirmed so far.
It is the fourth mass public dumping of bodies in regional centers in just over two months, a rash of killings officials blame on a brutal turf war between rival drug cartels which is ricocheting from one side of the country to the other.
Murders in Guadalajara, capital of the state of Jalisco and home to mariachi music and tequila, have spiked in the last year as the Sinaloa cartel’s hold on the city has weakened.
The death of key lieutenant Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel in a shootout with soldiers in Guadalajara in July 2010 opened the door to gangs including the Zetas and Milenio, from neighboring Michoacan state, trying to muscle in on the Sinaloans’ turf.
Local media said the message found with the bodies, dumped less than 1 mile (kilometre) from the site where the Guadalajara International Book Fair will be held from Saturday, purported to be from the Zetas and was directed at Sinaloa boss and Mexico’s most-wanted trafficker, Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman.
Officials blamed a group with ties to Guzman for two mass dumpings of more than 60 bodies, seen as a signal to the Zetas, in the eastern port city of Veracruz in September and October.
The discovery of the latest bodies, many of them bound and shot in the head, follows the dumping of 16 charred corpses in the Sinaloan capital Culiacan on Wednesday.
“Members of organized crime are confronting each other, fighting for their turf. It could be that an atrocity happens in one part of the country and the bill is paid in another state,” Sinaloa state governor Mario Lopez told local radio.
Among the Culiacan dead were at least seven people, three of them police officers, who had been kidnapped from a small Sinaloan town on Monday, a local official said on Thursday.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon has deployed the army to crack down on powerful criminal gangs and some 45,000 people have died in the conflict since he took office.
Security forces flocked to Guadalajara, home to 4.5 million people and famed for its mustachioed musicians in wide-brimmed sombreros and top-flight soccer team, last month as the city hosted the Pan American Games, but have since left the city.
Organizers of the book fair expect about 600,000 visitors to the exhibition hall for the event they bill as the most important on the Spanish-language publishing calendar.
The U.S. consulate in Guadalajara warned on February 3 of “a marked escalation of criminal activity.” It banned U.S. government officials from traveling after dark between the city and its main airport and urged U.S. visitors to follow suit.
Drug violence has already engulfed the northern business hub of Monterrey, a city of similar size to Guadalajara, prompting some companies to freeze investment.
Writing by Patrick Rucker; editing by Anthony Boadle and Todd Eastham