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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Mexico's Gang Wars Spawn Vigilante Justice

2009 Houston Chronicle

The bodies of four alleged gangsters, stuffed into a parked car near President Felipe Calderon's compound in this capital city, carried a message of divine retribution:

“The wicked are denied their light, and the upraised arm is broken,” proclaimed the biblical passage, Job 38:15. Scrawled with a marker on the backs of three of the bodies, a single word — “Kidnapper.”

The discovery of the dead men two weeks ago suggests to many Mexicans that despairing private citizens or even local officials may be exacting their own raw justice amid the unbridled crime sweeping the country.

Lynching and extra-judicial killings are far from unknown in Mexico, whose justice system often has proved woefully insufficient. Rural and poor urban communities beat or execute accused rapists and thieves. Local power brokers, known as caciques, employ private gunmen to deal with nettlesome opponents or criminals.

But the escalating drug turf wars, which have claimed most of the 14,000 people killed by gangland violence since December 2006, have also wrought more kidnapping, extortion and theft. And some in Mexico are pushing back.

“There's just incredible frustration and there is no outlet for it,” said U.S. political analyst George Grayson, who has recently finished a book on the Mexican government's inability to end the crime wave. “Average people feel impotent.”

Death squads?

Last Tuesday, thousands of people in a village near Mexico City threatened to lynch four alleged kidnappers. The men, two of whom authorities say may be federal policemen, were rescued by state police who rushed to the town of Juchitepec.

Earlier this month, human rights activists in Sinaloa state, cradle of most of Mexico's narcotics smuggling syndicates, claimed that death squads, possibly composed of police officers, might be behind a string of recent killings targeting suspected car thieves.

And, following the July murders of two American church leaders who had challenged a local kidnapping, a fundamentalist Mormon farm community southwest of Ciudad Juarez requested and temporarily received permission to form a militia.

A group dubbed the “Citizens' Command” early this year announced it would begin killing gangsters in bloody Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso. Several subsequent killings suggested that the victims were targeted by such a group.

U.N. help sought

Frustrated business groups have called for the deployment of U.N. peacekeeping troops to the city, where the presence of thousands of federal troops has failed to quell the murders and mayhem.

The bodies discovered in Mexico City were those of an alleged Monterrey gangster, Hector Saldaña, his two brothers and another man.

Their deaths were announced hours earlier by Mauricio Fernandez, the new mayor of the Monterrey suburb of San Pedro Garza Garcia, even before police identified the bodies.

San Pedro Garza Garcia is one of Mexico's wealthiest communities and allegedly home to members of the Beltran Leyva clan. The mayor had publicly accused Saldaña of orchestrating the kidnappings and extortion there, adding the gangster also was behind death threats he received early last month.

‘Cleaning teams'

Fernandez repeatedly has vowed to crack down on narcotics and other vice in San Pedro through the use of still unspecified “cleaning teams” dedicated to harsh work. But he denied any connection with the men's deaths.

“Sometimes coincidences happen in life. It's better to see it that way,” Fernandez told the Monterrey newspaper El Norte, explaining he knew about the bodies because state officials had provided him early information on the crime.

Fernandez says he had nothing to do with the killings. But, he claims, extortion ended in San Pedro following Saldaña's death.

Fernandez points to the Nov. 4 gangland killings of the police chief and his four bodyguards in a nearby suburb as proof that municipal governments must be aggressive against organized crime. He told reporters in Mexico City Thursday that he was going to do everything within the framework of the law.

“I am consolidating the objectives I laid out,” he said, vowing publicly to act lawfully.

“I warned I was going to grab the bull by the horns.”

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