CHETUMAL, Mexico – Much like his great uncle, revolutionary leader Pancho Villa, retired Mexican army Gen. Carlos Bibiano Villa Castillo isn't easily frightened.
Even before Villa started his job last month as top cop in the Caribbean coast state of Quintana Roo, he'd received a grisly welcome from Mexico's most ruthless drug cartel, the Zetas.
"This is a little gift for you," read the note, which was placed on a dismembered body dumped near the resort city of Cancun. "You're next, Villa."
It was no idle threat. Two years ago, retired Gen. Mauro Enrique Tello was kidnapped, tortured and killed shortly after he was hired as a security adviser to root out corruption in Cancun.
The 62-year-old Villa, who shares the intense stare and strong features of his famous relative, is undeterred. He started his new job on April 5.
"Damn good that they sent me a warning," Villa told The Associated Press. "If they are warning me, I'll be ready."
Such bravado has been a trademark for Villa as he's joined the struggle to contain this country's escalating drug wars and suggested publicly that he subscribes to a shoot-first, ask-questions-later style of policing.
A father of three, Villa sleeps with a rifle and a .44 caliber pistol he calls "mi negrita" — "my little black one." He joined the military at age 16, happy to receive three hot meals a day after a youth spent herding cattle in the mountains of Durango. A telecommunications and intelligence expert during his 43 years in the military, he rose to the rank of general and now calls the army his father, and the nation his mother.
In fact, Villa represents a new mold of top cop in a country where all levels of law enforcement — even federal prosecutors — have been co-opted by drug cartels. According to Mexico's Institute for Security and Democracy, 17 of Mexico's 32 states have retired military officers heading their departments of public security. Two years ago, the newspaper Reforma said there were only six.
That trend concerns human rights observers, who say a military-based approach threatens to only escalate the violence in a nation where mass graves and gang executions have become numbingly common. Nationwide, drug turf battles already have resulted in more than 34,000 deaths over the last four years.
"Military men have skills for eliminating their enemies, but not necessarily in crime prevention," said Juan Salgado, a specialist in public safety research at Mexico's Center for Economic Research and Teaching.
Oscar Manuel Soto, a researcher for the National Institute of Criminal Justice, notes that military officers have the advantage of specialized training in weapons and tactics, but that knowledge "is to handle situations of war, not to handle civilian situations, and that is a big problem."
The get-tough military style was made famous by Julian Leyzaola, a retired army lieutenant colonel and former Tijuana police chief who now heads public safety in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico's most dangerous.
While his crackdown on crime was popular in Tijuana, he was accused of torturing police he labeled corrupt. Villa says his strategy and style have nothing to do with Leyzaola, whom he said he's never met.
Villa stoked similar worries, however, after retiring from the military in early 2009 and serving as police chief in the northern city of Torreon, a major battleground between the Zetas and Sinaloa cartels. By his own count, his force carried out 76 gun battles with cartel foot soldiers; he was grazed by a bullet fragment in one confrontation.
In the 15 months Villa was police chief, the Coahuila state commission on humans rights opened four investigations into reports of arbitrary detention by local police. The commission didn't provide information on the outcomes, but none included allegations of torture or more serious human rights violations.
It was in Torreon that Villa saw firsthand the carnage wrought by the Zetas, which have been blamed for the massacres of 183 people in March and 72 in August in northern Tamaulipas state.
Villa recently told a local newspaper, La Jornada, "When I catch a Zeta ... I kill him. Why interrogate him?"
He has since backed away from the comment, insisting he said it in a moment of pique, when he had just survived the second ambush targeting him in a year and seen the man he expected to replace him in Torreon murdered.
In fact, Villa, an athletic career soldier with a carefully cropped mustache, has been fond of throwing off such one-liners. He's also been quoted as saying, "The only thing (a police chief) needs is a set of balls, and no fear."
Villa said he had to get tough in Torreon because he was dealing with a police force he described as overweight, corrupt and inefficient. Of the 1,100-member police force, "1,000 were corrupt," he charged.
"What did I need criminals for, if they were all on the force?" he said. Some of the officers there even rented out their uniforms and vehicles to crooks, he added.
Villa fired 600 police officers in Torreon and recruited new ones, including 114 former soldiers. He instituted background and drug checks and extensive vetting for officers.
"I put some discipline in place, a heavy hand," he recalls.
Now, he promises to take a similar approach in Quintana Roo, a state the Zetas are believed to use as a trans-shipment point for drugs.
Villa said he sees some of the same problems among municipal and state police all over the country.
Of the 388,000 officers on such police forces, 70 percent have only a grade-school education and 60 percent earn less than $350 per month, raising concerns that they may be more susceptible to corruption.
On top of that, small town police also often are afraid of local criminals.
"A local policeman lives in that community, and the criminals know him, and know where he lives," Villa said. "And they threaten them, 'Cooperate or I'll go after your family.'"
His evaluation of the 1,700-member police force now under his command is hardly more encouraging.
"Sixty percent are useless: fat bellies, diabetes, flat feet ... they've got everything," he said.
Before taking the job, he was disappointed to hear his department had 60 advisers on the payroll.
"I don't want advisers, I want people on the street," Villa says. "What I want is 'go out and bust some heads.'"
In fact, Villa seems to be itching for a fight. He turned almost whimsical while describing the thrills of a gun battle.
"You should see how beautifully you start to sweat and the adrenaline gets running when the fighting starts," he said.
Whether the residents of Quintana Roo will welcome such an approach remains to be seen. But Villa's brazen attitude has won support from some desperate to put a stop to the constant drug cartel brutality.
"Men of these abilities and resoluteness are what the country needs," wrote reader Pedro Cazares in response to a La Jornada article about the general. "Just let them do their job."