Damian Dovarganes AP file
Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman as he looked after his arrest in 1993. He later escaped.
By DUDLEY ALTHAUS
Perhaps more sinister than the savagery used on the 15 men whose headless bodies recently were dumped like offal on an Acapulco sidewalk was the signature on the placards accompanying them.
"El Chapo Guzman," they were signed, referring to the Napolean-size man who is Mexico's most infamous and arguably most powerful gangster.
The handwritten notes warned that the men's brutal fate - the coroner said they were still alive when their heads were severed - would be shared by any who "attempt to enter the territory."
If the men really were murdered on behalf of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, it means the drug lord - listed by Forbes as one of the world's richest men and by the U.S. Department of Justice as worth millions in rewards - is laying claim to the Pacific Coast resort.
That portends even more violent days ahead for an already bloodied city that's both a prime gateway for South American cocaine and a lucrative market for selling drugs to locals and tourists.
Last Saturday's slaughter also might signal that Guzman, whose gunmen already are battling rivals for control of Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana and other cities, is willing to employ a barbarity that has rarely been his trademark.
"It really isn't his style to use these types of actions," Luis Astorga, a leading analyst of Mexico's drug trafficking organizations, said in expressing doubt that Guzman was behind the beheadings. "But each organization wants to show itself as more terrifying than its competitors."
More than 34,000 people have been killed since President Felipe Calderon's crackdown on drug trafficking organizations began four years ago. Some 15,000 were killed in 2010 alone, many in cities along the Texas border, as massacres, assassinations and gunfights with government security forces spiked.
The violence has been spurred in large part by the government's dismantling of trafficking gangs and the capture or killing of their bosses. Half the 37 men who officials say are Mexico's most dangerous gangsters have been put either in their graves or behind bars.
Such a "kingpin" strategy, advocated by U.S. officials, proved key to bringing Colombia's criminal organizations under control in the 1990s. It has been the linchpin of Calderon's effort.
Although killings accelerate as underlings or rivals move into the vacuum left by the fallen, those who eventually win prove less capable and weaker than the men they replace, Mexican and U.S. officials argue.
"When the very powerful historic leaders fall, these little bosses that were under them lose their operating capacity," Alejandro Poire, the government's public security spokesman, said this week. "The new leaders who try to assume these positions do so amid a notably weaker criminal structure."
Maybe, but the logic seems more than a little strained when it comes to 5-foot, 6-inch "El Chapo" - or "Shorty" - Guzman.
Already in his shadow
Since his curiously easy escape from a maximum security prison nearly a decade ago, Guzman, 53, has become Mexico's most powerful crime boss. Forbes has listed his fortune at about $1 billion.
Although Mexico's army commanders consider Guzman their primary target, he has easily evaded every attempt to kill or capture him. He's believed to spend much of his time in the marijuana- and heroin-producing Sierra Madre mountains that separate Sinaloa and Durango states, protected by hundreds of gunmen, loyal villagers and corrupt police.
But he also is suspected to be living at least part-time in Central America, far from the upscale neighborhoods of Mexico City and Guadalajara, where many of his colleagues have been captured.
As head of the so-called Federation, an alliance of smuggling gangs based in the Pacific Coast state of Sinaloa, Guzman controls drug production, sales and smuggling throughout much of Western Mexico. He long has had his eye on his rivals' territory .
Indeed, the ongoing wave of severe gangland violence began in 2004, when Guzman tried to take control of Nuevo Laredo, one of the most important smuggling corridors.
Hundreds were killed as Guzman's gunmen fought it out with the Gulf Cartel.
The fighting in Ciudad Juarez, bordering El Paso, began three years ago when Guzman sent thugs to take control of the city. Some 7,000 people have been murdered in the city of 1.3 million since then.
Now, perhaps, it is Acapulco's turn.
The city long fell under Guzman's shadow, controlled by his allies in the Beltran Leyva smuggling organization. But Guzman and the Beltran Leyvas began feuding three years ago. And the Beltran Leyva organization has all but disintegrated since the killing 13 months ago of Arturo, the most powerful of four brothers.
'Bring them all down'
Nearly 1,000 people were killed in Acapulco, Guerrero state to which it belongs, and neighboring states as Arturo's older brother, Hector, fought with his former lieutenant, Texas-born Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez, for control of the organization.
Valdez surrendered to Mexican police last fall and is expected to be deported to the United States.
"The problem is you are no longer sure who is doing what to whom," said Astorga, the Mexican analyst. "There is obviously no federal government strategy to control the expanding wave of violence."
Astorga and other analysts argue that Calderon's security chiefs may be choosing their targets, focusing on smaller and weaker gangs while leaving Guzman until the end.
Otherwise, "the federation would end up being the only criminal organization in Mexico, intolerably powerful and corruptive," said Robert Bonner, former head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, who oversaw efforts against Colombia's gangsters.
"You have to bring them all down," Bonner said of Mexico's remaining criminal gangs. "Sinaloa can be last, but you have to destroy the organization. You have to."