- Associated Press - Monday, January 31, 2011

IXTEPEC, Mexico | A priest who shelters stranded migrants needs police protection. A chopped-up body turns up with a threatening message. Beheadings are on the rise. The local press is too frightened to write about any of it.

This is not northern Mexico, where drug gangs fight for turf along the U.S. border and the Mexican government wages an open battle against them. This is the south, where the brutal Zetas cartel is quietly spreading a reign of terror virtually unchallenged, all the way to the border with Guatemala — and across it.

Just as they have done in the north, groups claiming to be Zetas have set up criminal networks to control transit routes for drugs, migrants and contraband such as pirated DVDs, intimidating the populace and committing gruesome murders as an example to the uncooperative.

Four years ago, they started preying on the south, Mexico’s poorest region. They moved into Oaxaca, Chiapas and other southern states and then northern Guatemala, where attacks on townspeople became so commonplace that the government last month sent in 300 troops to regain control of the border province of Alta Verapaz.

In towns on the Oaxacan isthmus and the center of Oaxaca city, the capital, the wealthy as well as street vendors and migrants have been kidnapped and subjected to extortion.

A migrant from Central America stands outside a migrant house, as do local police in the town of Arriaga, in Mexico's southern state of Chiapas, on Jan. 6. More than forty such migrants were abducted in Oaxaca in a December incident; 20 subsequently escaped. (Associated Press)
A migrant from Central America stands outside a migrant house, as do ... more >

Then last month, the gang blamed for massacring 72 migrants in the summer in the northern state of Tamaulipas became suspects in the disappearance of more than 40 Central American migrants in Oaxaca. The abduction drew international attention when the El Salvadoran Foreign Ministry reported the crime, but the Mexican government initially denied it happened.

The travelers were last seen Dec. 16 near the city of Ixtepec, along the sun-scorched transit route for thousands riding northbound freight trains. Twenty escaped and took refuge at a migrant shelter run by the Rev. Alejandro Solalinde, who says he has learned the kidnappers have ties to the Zetas.

The Mexican Attorney General’s Office announced the arrest this month of a Nicaraguan and a Mexican on suspicion of being involved, but said nothing about Zetas or the missing migrants.

The Mexicans say the Zetas have hired Guatemalan former counterinsurgency soldiers to train new recruits, and a Zetas training camp for hit men was uncovered on the Guatemalan border last year.

Alejandro Poire, Mexico’s government spokesman for security issues, said the reported scope of Zetas activity in southern Mexico is hardly comparable to the turf battle raging between the Zetas and their competitors in the north, where a split from their former employers, the Gulf Cartel, has sparked regular grenade attacks and daylight shootouts.

But to Father Solalinde, the Zetas “are a terrible de facto power.”

“Unfortunately, we have a very corrupt country, with law enforcement agencies infiltrated” by organized crime, the priest said.

Four days after Father Solalinde reported the kidnapping and named the Zetas, he was visited by a burly, shaven-headed man whom police identified as a known hit man.

Police now patrol outside the shelter of unfinished cinderblock rooms, where migrants sleep on cardboard or blankets and stray dogs and cats wander about.

“There is danger,” Father Solalinde said. “But imagine if every single person in Mexico kept silent, if all looked the other way, if no one did anything. That would be terrible for Mexico.”

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