At least three drug groups are fighting for control in Acapulco, Mexico
With a weekend death toll of more than 30 victims, including 15 who were found decapitated, the Mexican resort city of Acapulco is facing its most gruesome levels of drug-related violence since the start of the drug war in 2006. Authorities in Guerrero state, where Acapulco is located, said that in all 31 people died violently in or around the city on Saturday and Sunday (link in Spanish).
Reports said decapitated bodies were found with messages indicating that the killings were ordered by Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, leader of the powerful Sinaloa cartel and Mexico's most-wanted man.
If Sinaloa hit men are indeed active in the Acapulco area, it would suggest a likely escalation in future violence for a city that has seen drug-related killings soar since the death of Arturo Beltrán Leyva, the capo who had controlled the valuable trafficking port.
Beltrán Leyva was killed in an operation led by the Mexican navy in December 2009. Like previous deaths or captures of high-profile drug lords, the sudden absence of a criminal figurehead in the region resulted in a scramble for control among splintering or rival groups. (The same phenomenon, for example, occurred in the Tijuana border area after the deaths or captures of capos in the Arellano Felix cartel.)
In this case, Beltrán Leyva's death was believed to have spurred Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez to step in briefly as leader before Valdez was captured in August 2010. (He entered federal custody and possible extradition to the United States with a now-famous smirk.) His father-in-law Carlos "The Cowboy" Montemayor reportedly took his place, but he also was captured, in November in Mexico City.
The violence currently gripping Acapulco is now due to a turf war among three groups, two of which have emerged only in the last year, according to the weekly news magazine Proceso. In an extended article on the climate in Acapulco that appeared in mid-December, the magazine said those players were: first, a branch of the Beltrán Leyva organization under Hector Beltrán Leyva, or "The H"; the new "south Pacific cartel," believed to have been founded by Valdez; and another offshoot group calling itself the "independent cartel of Acapulco."
At stake is control over Acapulco's port, on Mexico's southern Pacific coast. The bay offers a direct maritime route to the coasts of Colombia and Peru, the world's largest cocaine producers. The organization that controls the port and Guerrero state also would control trafficking routes through Morelos state to the north, where the city of Cuernavaca is located.
Residents and officials quoted in the Proceso story described terrifying tactics on the part of the organized-crime groups battling over control of Acapulco. Pedestrians and motorists have been stopped or pulled from their vehicles at gunpoint by masked men. Extortion is rampant in the tourism-dependent city. Forensic investigators tell of bodies mutilated with acts that they have no technical terms to accurately describe, such as decapitated human heads discovered without skin or hair.
Fighting has erupted along or near Acapulco's main coastal tourist drag in isolated incidents, but local officials are emphasizing that tourists are not generally targeted by organized-crime groups. Over the New Year's holiday, President Felipe Calderón and his family vacationed not far from the port, at a Mexican air force base at Pie de la Cuesta (link in Spanish).
-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City
Photo: a beach along Acapulco Bay. Credit: About.com