The bodies that turned up on a squalid back street in the border town of Reynosa in December were no longer human. The torsos showed deep lacerations and punctures; the severed heads were badly beaten and mutilated. Crudely butchered limbs lay scattered across the tarmac stained by blood.
“See. Hear. Shut up, if you want to stay alive,” read a note written - like so many others - in block letters on a splattered poster board.
Violence fueled by the illegal drug trade has long been a daily fact of life along the U.S.-Mexico border. But as the Mexican and U.S. governments have made significant inroads in dismantling an older order of drug cartels, their rivals and even newer ones have moved to fill the vacuum - and fill it in increasingly terrifying and barbarous ways.
The savagery began in earnest in 2006 in the city of Uruapan in the Mexican state of Michoacan, about 100 miles southeast of Guadalajara, when drug gang members stormed into the Sol y Sombra discotheque and dumped the decapitated heads of five rival cartel members onto a white tile dance floor - shocking people throughout Mexico.
Beheadings and dismemberments have since become the cartels’ signature crime - to punish those who oppose or betray them, to establish their turf, to terrorize the citizenry against testifying against them, and to press community and political leaders to collaborate.
Heads, torsos and severed legs and arms have been strewn along city streets throughout Mexico, mostly in border towns where the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels are in a pitched battle against each other and with Los Zetas, a former Mexican military group, for control of the multibillion-dollar drug industry.
Four severed heads have been found by Mexican authorities in the past two weeks, and dozens of people have been decapitated in recent months. Sometimes, the heads are lined up neatly in rows, displayed along with banners designed to intimidate enemies, rivals and police.
Aping Iraqi militants
Beheading was a lesson the drug smugglers learned after watching Iraqi insurgents carry out videotaped beheadings, Mexican Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna said during a 2007 news conference after the discovery of one of the first severed heads.
Zapata County, Texas, Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez Jr., who has experienced the border violence firsthand, said his department started seeing beheadings in Mexico about a year after the videotaped beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002 in Pakistan.
“Terrorists from the Middle East brought this practice to Central America then to Mexico. It is also a practice of the [violent U.S. street gang known as] MS-13,” Sheriff Gonzalez told The Washington Times. “They are getting worse and worse. It never stops shocking me.
“I am even more nervous about this practice spilling over into U.S. cities,” he said, noting that Mexican drug cartels are now operating in more than 200 American cities. “What a shame.”
Sheriff Gonzalez founded the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition, which sought help from the federal government to control growing violence along the 1,200-mile Texas-Mexico border. Overwhelmed by a flood of illegal immigrants and increasing violence, the coalition said the federal government’s failure to control the border had forced county law enforcement authorities into a “financial nightmare.”
The coalition has since expanded to become the Southwest Border Sheriff’s Coalition. It now includes 28 sheriffs’ departments along the border in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
Zapata County, with about 13,000 residents, is about 50 miles south of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, where killings by the drug cartels have been rampant. Sheriff Gonzalez has fewer than two dozen deputies to patrol nearly 1,000 square miles, including 60 miles of the border.
‘Fight or flee’
He said if Mexico’s major drug cartels are not “wiped out soon, the war will get a lot nastier.”
“They have artillery, and they will use it. What concerns me is that when the ‘fight or flee’ syndrome kicks in, they may try to make it into the U.S. This is already happening,” he said, while noting that “local politicians refuse to admit it.”
He said he has been in contact with police agencies in the U.S. interior and that a number of killings can be attributed to the Mexican cartels.
“America has already been impacted; it’s just that Americans don’t know it yet,” he said. “I think that we are going to have some very serious issues in about five to six months if the war in Mexico does not end by then.”
Robert C. Bonner, a former head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), said the major drug cartels have resorted to “beheadings and other grisly and macabre mutilations” for one plain and simple reason: to intimidate their rivals, the citizens of Mexico and the government.
“The increase in drug-related homicides and the resort to intimidation is a clear sign that the major drug cartels have been weakened and are in a state of disarray,” Mr. Bonner told The Times. “Corruption is not over, but the drug cartels are no longer able to corrupt the whole of government; and they can no longer operate with impunity. That is why they are lashing out.
“Unfortunately, a few seem willing to throw in the towel and make a Faustian pact with organized criminals. This would be a grave mistake for the future of Mexico and would also harm its relationship with the U.S.,” he said.
Mr. Bonner, a former federal judge who also headed the U.S. Customs Service and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), said the objective for both countries is clear: break the power and influence of the drug cartels based in Mexico over the legitimate institutions of the Mexican government - the police and the judiciary.
He said Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who declared war against that country’s drug cartels, is succeeding, “although there is a long way to go.”
“At times like this, it is worthwhile to remember that Colombia succeeded in defeating the … most powerful and fearsome drug cartels the world has even seen,” said Mr. Bonner, who headed the DEA when the infamous Medellin and Cali cartels of Colombia were dismantled. “They were destroyed by the Colombian government with U.S. assistance.
“I am confident that Mexico can do likewise,” he said. “But there will be a period of intense violence and intimidation, just as we saw in Colombia as the government there began to clamp down in earnest.”
More than 18,000 people have died from drug violence in Mexico since Mr. Calderon took office in late 2006 and declared war against the cartels.
Some of the beheadings have been videotaped. A few have ended up on YouTube, where they are quickly removed - but not until they have been seen by many.
William McMahon, deputy assistant director for field operation for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told a House subcommittee in July that Mexican drug cartels posed a “national security threat” to Mexico and “an organized crime threat” to the United States.
“Drug-related violence, including kidnappings and increasingly gruesome murders, has skyrocketed in recent years in Mexico, particularly near the border with the United States,” Mr. McMahon said.
The Justice Department, in a recent report by its National Drug Intelligence Center, said Mexican cartels are using southwestern border gangs to enforce and secure smuggling operations in that country and, to a lesser extent, in the United States, particularly in California and Texas.
The report said the cartels employ gang members who collect unpaid debts by using threats, extortion and intimidation and who kill rival traffickers or noncompliant members in Mexico and the United States. It said they also use gang members to enforce control of drug-trafficking routes from Mexico into the United States.
According to the report, the cartels have increased their efforts to recruit gang members along the southwestern border, including U.S. citizens who are a particularly valuable asset because they can cross the U.S.-Mexico border with less scrutiny and, as a result, are less likely to have illicit drug loads interdicted.
The report noted that in 2009, between 6,500 and 8,000 people were killed in Mexico as cartels battled for control over smuggling corridors and responded to increased pressure from the Mexican government. It said that while much of the violence attributed to conflicts over control of smuggling routes has been confined to Mexico, some has occurred in the United States.
In 2007, the governments of Mexico and the United States implemented a multiyear program against drug-trafficking organizations and organized crime. Known as the Merida Initiative, it commits each nation to confront organized crime and improve bilateral cooperation, particularly in the areas of information gathering and sharing, and law enforcement technology and training.
Since 2008, Congress has approved a total of $1.05 billion for Mexico under the program.
The funding pays for inspection equipment, scanners and canine units; improved communications systems; vetting for new police officers; software to track investigations; new offices of citizen complaints and professional responsibility; witness-protection programs; and helicopters and surveillance aircraft.
While Mr. Bonner lauded U.S. efforts in the Merida Initiative, he said the effort should go further.
In Colombia in the mid-1990s, he initiated a joint “kingpin” strategy targeting major drug organizations by attacking their most vulnerable areas - the chemicals needed to process the drugs, and their finances, communications, transportation and leadership structure.