Latin America: Mexico's Drug War Erupts Bloodily in Acapulco 2/3/06

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Mexicans have become used to the bloody "ajuste de cuentas" (settling of accounts) among drug trafficking organizations attempting to consolidate power in the wake of the Mexican government's latest crackdown on the trade. In an unintended, but no longer surprising, consequence of Mexican drug law enforcement, the border cities of the north have seen unprecedented violence in the past year, with more than 1600 dying in the battle of the so-called cartels last year and 144 since the new year began, according to the Mexican National Human Rights Commission.

But it wasn't supposed to happen in sunny Acapulco, far from the border on Mexico's southern Pacific Coast. Still, the faded but reviving tourist destination found itself wracked by dramatic and murderous violence during late January. In a one-week period ending January 27, at least 11 people were killed, 10 wounded, and 12 under arrest, according to Mexican press reports compiled by New Mexico State University's Frontier News Service. The week was marked by grenade attacks, pitched battles, and hours-long, siren-laced street chases, and was a loud challenge to both local and national law enforcement in the final months of the administration of President Vicente Fox.

The violence is being attributed to conflict between the cartel headed by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and an alliance of the Tijuana-based Arrellano-Felix cartel and the Tamaulipas-based Gulf Cartel. Both sides count on heavily-armed paramilitary squads of former soldiers. The violence included an attack on visitors leaving a state prison that left three dead, the street assassination of another man outside a karaoke bar, and the killings of three more men at retail illicit drug outlets known as "tienditas." Then things really started getting out of hand.

On January 27, Acapulco police tried to stop three vehicles in an armed convoy in the La Garita neighborhood, setting off an hour-long gun-battle that left workers, residents, and passers-by scrambling for cover. The mayhem spread throughout the city, as a 15-vehicle convoy of police and soldiers screamed through town in pursuit of an SUV that fled the shootout. By the time it was over, four narcos lay dead in the street, four policemen were wounded, and so were two civilians. The four dead gunmen were wearing vests from the Federal Agency for Investigations (AFI), and three carried AFI IDs. While federal authorities said the IDs were phony, the familiar scent of corruption is in the air.

At least new Mayor Felix Salgado Macedonio, of the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), thought so. He caused controversy early on by claiming state and federal police allowed shooters in the January 20 attack escape after city police had them cornered. Police were involved in crime, he said. His charge was bolstered a few days later when the Mexican army detained nine men in Acapulco, seizing military weapons, drugs, and cash. The men detained included two Guerrero state policemen, a Tamaulipas state policeman, and a Mexico City policeman.

It all had Acapulco cops and political figures pretty jumpy. Armed squads of police and soldiers guarded the hospital rooms of wounded law enforcement personnel and the city's municipal buildings and police headquarters were transformed into armed camps. Mexican army soldiers took up fortified positions around police headquarters, and Mayor Salgado cancelled all public appearances. Meanwhile, just up the coastal highway near Zihautenejo, two government helicopters on a drug-spraying mission were hit by gunfire, and just across the state border in Michoacan, three policemen were gunned down by unknown assassins.

Acapulco had traditionally been relatively free of cartel violence, but with its roles as a cocaine transshipment center for goods heading north, major local retail drug market, and ideal money laundering center, it is now paying the price for Mexico's war on drugs.

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Issue #421 -- 2/3/06

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