PARAJE NUEVO, Mexico—Until seven corpses turned up here a few weeks ago, residents of this hamlet nestled near the coffee-rich mountains of southern Mexico thought they were immune from the drug violence that's long plagued the gritty northern border with the United States.
Now they live in fear, as drug violence has arrived deep in the heart of Mexico.
The dead men were strangers, dressed in fashionable jeans and designer underwear. Each man's hands and feet were bound by duct tape. Their eyes and mouths were also taped over, leaving the victims looking like silver mummies. Each had a wooden rosary around his neck and a single bullet wound in the back of the head.
"There's no doubt it's the work of drug traffickers," said a police officer who worked the crime scene. The officer refused to speculate on which drug cartel might have been responsible. Fearing for his life, he asked not to be named.
Grisly murders are seemingly daily fare in border cities such as Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez or Nuevo Laredo, all across from major U.S. cities and along the routes favored by traffickers seeking to take their wares into the United States.
But Mexican and U.S. officials have noticed a disturbing trend in the past year—the violence has moved to parts of Mexico far from traditional smuggling routes. Now in states such as Veracruz, where Paraje Nuevo is located, and along the border with Guatemala, drug-related killings are frequent, if not common.
Mexican President Vicente Fox, in a recent interview with Knight Ridder, said the rise of violence is partly due to the successful crackdown on Mexico's largest drug cartels. With the jailing of the heads of the so-called Tijuana and Gulf cartels, smaller "cartelitos" are vying to take their place.
"This has opened spaces that second-level players are trying to occupy," Fox said in the Feb. 27 interview.
But Fox also acknowledged that the violence shows that Mexico is no longer only a transit route for drugs flowing from South America to the United States. With tougher border security in the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, drug smugglers are now "pushing cheap drugs in the Mexican market."
The result is a war being fought both for the right to sell drugs in Mexican cities and for the smuggling routes that get the drugs to the lucrative U.S. market.
"As you get down the food chain, it's a fight for scraps. There's a sense that the major players, they don't have the control they used to have," said a U.S. official involved in the drug war who requested anonymity because much of his work is undercover.
Anne Patterson, the U.S. assistant secretary of state of international narcotics and law enforcement, said on March 1 that despite Mexico's laudable anti-drug efforts under Fox, Mexico has "enormous ungoverned spaces" for traffickers to exploit.
The problem is clear from one end of Mexico to the other. On Tuesday, a state police commander in Nuevo Laredo, on the U.S. border, was killed in a hail of gunfire from AK-47s. Local news organizations didn't report the killing after callers warned them not to.
Recently, a police raid in a posh neighborhood of Monterrey, northern Mexico's industrial capital, turned up a massive arsenal of weapons and grenades traced to Central America.
At Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico's southernmost border crossing with Guatemala, a photographer on assignment for Knight Ridder found marijuana growing along the banks of the Suchiate River in plain view of Mexican military patrols.
In interior cities such as colonial Cordoba, where Mexico celebrated its independence from Spain, police complain of mounting drug sales, particularly in schools. In San Cristobal de las Casas, a picturesque city inhabited by colorfully dressed descendants of the ancient Mayans, Indian kids sell cocaine in small Chiclets boxes.
"This is a restructured drug industry, alive and well in Mexico, with new players trying to get advantage," said Bruce M. Bagley, an expert on the international drug trade and a professor at Florida's University of Miami. "And they have no qualms of resorting to violence and brutality to eliminate their rivals or public officials that are in fact, or believed to be, in cooperation."
Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, the head of the Pentagon's Southern Command, last month told a conference at Florida International University that he was stunned by his recent tour of Guatemala's northern Peten jungle, a largely unpopulated nature reserve along the porous border where Central America meets Mexico.
"If you fly over the region and look towards the horizon, as far as you can see you will see a landscape that is crisscrossed with an incredible number of clandestine air strips," Craddock said in the Feb. 2 speech. "What I saw in this region was startling."
Also startling is official involvement in the drug trade. The PGR, Mexico's equivalent of the U.S. Justice Department, published a report last week called "High Impact Results." The agency highlighted how it has seized 124.5 tons of cocaine and 9,791 tons of marijuana since 2001.
Nestled in the report was this fact: The PGR has investigated or is investigating 3,229 of its own employees—more than half of all PGR workers—on suspicions of some crime. Of that number, 1,563 belong to the Federal Investigations Agency, or AFI, a rough equivalent to the FBI and one that works many drug-related cases.
What happened to the seven men at Paraje Nuevo may never be known. One version of events says four of the men found in the sugar cane field were taken from a rented home in the port city of Veracruz two days earlier.
Neighbors said a swarm of men arrived in AFI vehicles, dressed in AFI uniforms, and forcibly took away the four.
But Veracruz newspapers also have raised the likelihood that the men weren't AFI agents, but possibly former Guatemalan military commandos called Kaibiles, now linked to drug cartels, or the feared Zetas, former elite Mexican anti-drug agents who've crossed over to the enemy's side.
Veracruz's state prosecutor Emeterio Lopez couldn't be reach for comment. He canceled at the last minute a scheduled interview with Knight Ridder in the state capital of Jalapa and declined several other interview requests.
What's certain is that the killings have shaken this corner of Mexico. Knowledgeable police say the men suffered before they died: One had two toes sliced off; another's eyes had been pierced with a sharp object. Most had burns on their bodies, especially on their genitals.
"The violence is coming to all parts of Mexico and no one escapes it," said Miguel Angel Figueroa Ramos, mayor of Amatlan de los Reyes, a town of about 10,000. Six of the seven unidentified victims were buried there in a mass grave that stands out because there are no crosses.
A WHO'S WHO OF MEXICO'S DRUG WARS
Mexico's drug trafficking has been controlled by four big cartels, the Tijuana, Sinaloa, Juarez and Gulf. They have battled one another for years for control of smuggling routes into the United States. Their leaders are:
_Benjamin Arellano Felix. The leader of the Tijuana cartel, Mexico's most violent, has been jailed since March 9, 2002.
_Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman. Leader of the Sinaloa cartel, he escaped from prison Jan. 19, 2001. He's allegedly battling the Gulf cartel for supremacy along Mexico's eastern coast and seeking revenge against the Tijuana cartel for the New Year's Eve 2004 murder of his brother Arturo.
_Osiel Cardenas: Leader of the Gulf cartel, he was captured on March 14, 2003, in a shootout across the border from Brownsville, Texas. But Cardenas allegedly still runs his group from federal prison and operates in an alliance with the Tijuana cartel.
_Vicente Carrillo Fuentes. Believed to be the leader of the Juarez cartel, which has expanded its operation east along the U.S. border.
_"Cartelitos." So-called little cartels are cropping up across Mexico, trying to gun their way to the top.
_Zetas. Former members of Mexico's elite anti-drug units, they've gone to work as gunslingers and guards for the top drug bosses.
_Kaibiles. Former Guatemalan military commandos linked to massacres and other human rights violations who now work for drug gangs.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MEXICO-DRUGS
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060210 MEXICO DRUGS
Need to map