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Drug-trade violence grips Acapulco

Warring drug cartels have brought a surge in gruesome violence to this Mexican resort town this year.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 14, 2006


He took office as a charismatic, ballad-singing maverick who promised to contain crime in this coastal resort town.

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But during his term, Acapulco, once known as the "Pearl of the Pacific," has seen its reputation – and its mayor, Félix Salgado – battered by the worst drug violence in the town's history. Mr. Salgado has lost 33 pounds in nine months and, when asked what his major accomplishment has been so far, answers deprecatingly: "that I'm alive."

"I've been dealt a very complicated situation, very hard," says Salgado, turning serious. In July he mourned the death of his city's security chief found suffocated in the back of a car.

Salgado's survival during a siege of violence mirrors the impact on Acapulco and beyond, as the drug war between two cartels has spread from the northern ganglands along the US-Mexican border toward the south – both startling, and horrifying, the nation.

Some 1,500 have been killed in drug violence this year, double the number in previous years. But it's the recent, and growing, viciousness of the acts that has been most unsettling. Acapulco has seen grenade attacks and decapitations haunt its front pages. Bodies have been wrapped in garbage bags, heads hung on the fence outside government offices.

Salgado and other city officials say that a national plan of stepped-up police enforcement has helped stem the violence. But just last week, in the neighboring state of Michoacan, five heads were hurled onto a dance floor while the disco was in full swing, showing how volatile the situation is becoming. It will be one of the most vexing problems for incoming president Felipe Calderón.

"I never expected this war would last so long, and it is bad news for Mexican society," says Jorge Chabat, a criminal justice expert in Mexico City. "One of the challenges Calderón has to face is he has to reach an agreement with other parties to make long-term reform."

Long ties to drug trade

Acapulco has old ties to drugs, with coves along the Pacific Coast where speedboats have long picked up cocaine from South America. But growing domestic consumption and the battle for key entry points into the US has fueled unprecedented violence, with over 65 execution-style killings this year alone.

"In the last 50 years, we have never seen anything like this," says Jorge Valdez Reycen, a spokesperson for the local police. "This is a police force not trained for war, it is trained for tourism."

The escalating violence is believed to be the fallout between the Sinaloa cartel, which had dominated Acapulco, and the Gulf cartel, which has been moving into its territory. "It has gotten really personal too, which is why it is spiraling out of control," says Laurie Freeman, who authored a report this summer on Mexico's drug trade for the Washington Office on Latin America think tank. "The trafficking is nothing new, the level of violence is."

In the past six years, President Vicente Fox has made the war on drugs a top priority, making high-profile arrests. The arrest last month by US officials of suspected drug cartel kingpin Francisco Javier Arellano Félix was lauded a major cross-border success.