By Rene Romo
Journal Southern Bureau
Churchgoers attending Sunday morning Mass in Palomas, Mexico, discovered three severed heads in the town's main plaza, law enforcement officials said.
Eddie Espinoza, mayor of the town of Columbus, where many residents have family ties in Palomas just south of the border, said the horrific display by the perpetrators marked an intensification of the drug-related violence that had quieted somewhat in the area in recent months.
"Compared to the killings of the past, this has escalated to a more severe, gruesome kind of exhibition," Espinoza said.
After authorities were alerted to the presence of the heads in the plaza where a Catholic church sits, a badly charred sport utility vehicle containing the bodies of three headless victims was discovered south of town, said Columbus Police Chief Angelo Vega.
The killer or killers left a message with the severed heads that referred to the victims as extortionists, Vega said. The message essentially said the killers would not tolerate anyone else extorting local victims, that "it's our game, nobody else's," Vega said.
The identities of the three male victims had not been determined Monday.
Several American law enforcement officials said it was the first time they could recall killers depositing a victim's head in Palomas, a village that over the years has catered to Americans seeking inexpensive medicine, dental services and meals.
In the ongoing violence between warring drug cartels in Mexico, the public display of severed heads and decapitated bodies has become almost a commonplace horror in Ciudad Juárez and other parts of the country. "It's happened all over Mexico the last couple of years," said Ernie Ortiz, director of the New Mexico High-Intensity Drug-Trafficking Area office.
In what is perhaps the most high-profile act of violence in the Palomas area, Mayor Estanislao "Tanys" Garcia was abducted and killed last October, his bullet-riddled body found south of town in a car that had been set ablaze.
Vega said some residents of Columbus who attend church in Palomas saw the severed heads Sunday morning.
Local police, Vega said, will remain vigilant and try to coordinate efforts with Mexican authorities. "It's next door, so we've got to maintain communication and realize that it's just across the line," Vega said. "It's knocking at our back door, so we'll maintain the line."