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Arizona beheading raises fears of cartels

Police suspect punishment for drug theft

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CHANDLER, Ariz. | The gruesome case of a man who was stabbed and beheaded in a suburban Phoenix apartment has police investigating whether the killing is the most extreme example of Mexican drug cartel violence spilling over the border.

Martin Alejandro Cota-Monroy's body was found Oct. 10 in a Chandler apartment, his severed head a couple of feet away. One man suspected in the killing has been arrested, and a manhunt is under way for three others.

Detectives are focused on whether the men belong to a Mexican drug cartel, and they suspect that Mr. Cota-Monroy's killing was punishment for stealing drugs. The brutal nature of the killing could be designed to send a message to others within the cartel.

"If it does turn out to be a drug cartel out of Mexico, typically that's a message being sent," said Chandler police Detective David Ramer. "This person was chosen to be executed. It sends a message to other people: If you cross us, this is what happens."

Decapitations are a regular part of the drug war in Mexico as cartels fight over territory. Headless bodies have been hanged from bridges by their feet, severed heads have been sent to victims' family members and government officials, and bags of up to 12 heads have been dropped off in high-profile locations.

More than 28,000 people have been killed in Mexico in drug-related violence since December 2006, when President Felipe Calderon deployed soldiers to battle the cartels in their strongholds.

If the suspects in the Arizona case belong to a cartel, the crime could be the only known beheading in the U.S. carried out by a drug cartel, said Tony Payan, a political science professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who has conducted extensive research about border violence.

The killing also could affect the immigration debate in Arizona. Supporters of the state's immigration law frequently cite this type of violence as a reason to crack down on illegal immigrants. The decapitation victim and the suspects were all illegal immigrants.

Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, drew criticism this year for claiming that headless bodies were being found in the Arizona desert as she sought to bolster her argument for immigration reform. She later backtracked on those claims but said such violence in the broader border region is cause enough for alarm.

The killing has unnerved residents in the neighborhood and apartment complex where Mr. Cota-Monroy was killed.

The tiny, run-down complex sits along a side street across from ramshackle trailer homes in a neighborhood not far from brand-new strip malls with big-box stores in the suburb of Chandler.

No one is living inside the apartment that is the scene of the crime. There's beat-up leather furniture, a bouquet of flowers and a candle on a dining-room table, and the kitchen cabinets are ajar, as if someone left in a hurry.

"I'm terrified," said Norma Alvarado, a 47-year-old housekeeper who lives two doors away from the apartment. "I've lived here for 20 years and I've never heard of [decapitation] happening, and it was so close to us. … Maybe they're copying what's happening in Mexico."

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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