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24 bodies found in Mexico park

The apparent settling of gang scores appears to be the largest mass killing since the drug war escalated in 2006.

September 14, 2008|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Gagged and bound, the bodies were dumped on a grassy roadside littered with trash. Most had been shot in the head, probably on the spot, judging from the spent shell casings. Some were carted there, already dead, authorities believe.

In what appears to be the largest single mass killing since Mexico's vicious drug war exploded nearly two years ago, the bodies of 24 men were discovered late Friday about 30 miles from this capital. The execution-style slayings probably were the latest battle between rival drug gangs, officials said Saturday.

The bodies were found in La Marquesa park, near a rest stop frequented by weekend travelers from Mexico City.

The drug war "knows no borders," said Enrique Pena Nieto, governor of the state of Mexico. He said the slayings were part of the "insecurity that prevails, in generalized form, in the nation."

All of the dead men sported short, military-type haircuts and most were dressed in T-shirts and shorts, apparel appropriate for weather far warmer than that of the Mexico City area. This led authorities to suspect they came from the neighboring states of Michoacan or Guerrero, where fighting among drug gangs is especially relentless.

None of the men were believed to be active-duty soldiers, Atty. Gen. Eduardo Medina Mora said. There was speculation that either the killed or killers belonged to the Zetas, a ruthless band of hit men, many of them ex-military, working for one of the most powerful narcotics-trafficking syndicates.

The attorney general's office said in a statement that the dead ranged in age from 20 to 35 and all had been shot in the head. Their hands and feet were bound with gray tape, also used to cover their mouths, a spokesman for the state prosecutor's office, Octavio Campos, said in an interview.

"The initial investigation indicates some of the people had been executed before arriving at the site while others were executed there," Campos said. "This may be a settling of scores between organized criminal bands." The attorney general's statement specifically noted that none had been decapitated.

According to a tally kept by the Reforma newspaper, 3,148 people have been killed in drug-related violence in 2008, with Friday the single most deadly day of the year; 17 other people were killed elsewhere in Mexico in shootings and attacks. Many victims turn up headless, including 12 bodies discovered on Aug. 28 on the Yucatan peninsula. The pace of the bloodletting far outstrips that of the previous year. Kidnappings are also at epidemic levels.

Warfare that was once confined to lawless swaths of Mexico's border and along smuggling routes has spread throughout Mexico since President Felipe Calderon's decision in December 2006 to unleash the army against traffickers.

Calderon maintains that the turmoil is proof that his crackdown is putting pressure on the criminal organizations that control a multibillion- dollar trade in cocaine, marijuana and heroin and who must compete for routes and dominance of the market.

He has dispatched 40,000 troops and 5,000 federal police officers into the streets as part of the campaign.

Analysts warn, however, that the escalating grisliness of violence committed by traffickers and their henchmen is aimed at frightening the public and eroding support for the government's efforts.

Polls indicate that Mexicans, once able to dismiss the bloodshed as something that played out among the criminals, are increasingly worried as the violence spreads and claims innocent victims.

Calderon, speaking Friday at a ceremony at Mexico's Military College, called on Mexicans to forge and sustain a united front against their criminal "enemies" to save the state from being overrun.

"In this war," he said, "there can be no truce because we will rescue, one by one, the towns, cities and public spaces in power of the criminals, and return them to our children, citizens, mothers, grandparents. . . .

"We will continue utilizing all -- all -- resources within our reach to recover the state's control and its territory, on all fronts."

Calderon spoke a few hours before the bodies were discovered at La Marquesa. By Saturday evening, none of the men had been officially identified. On a sign near the dump site, El Universal newspaper reported, someone had spray-painted the message: "This is the fight."

--

wilkinson@latimes.com

Times staff writer Cecilia Sanchez contributed to this report.

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