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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

Town fed up with violence turns to army

In the state of Zacatecas, residents of Villanueva demanded that the military take over. The soldiers came, but drug war violence got worse.

February 26, 2009|Tracy Wilkinson

VILLANUEVA, MEXICO — The people of Villanueva said they'd had enough. Men in cowboy hats, women with hand-scrawled signs, children on bikes -- they gathered outside town and blocked the main interstate highway.

"If you can't do it, quit!" they told their police force. They demanded that the army take over.

The army rolled into this town in Zacatecas state last month and ordered the police to stand down and surrender their weapons. They did.

Things only got worse. A few days later, Police Chief Romulo Madrid, a former military man said to be eager to cooperate with the army, was shot and killed outside his house at 10:30 on a bright morning. The mayor's chauffeur, a first cousin, was arrested in the shooting.

Five days later, gunmen working for a drug gang ambushed an army patrol. One soldier and four assailants were killed. Among the attackers captured was a police officer. Sources close to the military point to evidence that elements of the police force set up the army patrol.

For Mexicans to call on the armed forces, whose human rights record has been dubious at best, testifies to the firm conviction that the state and its civilian authorities, including the police, no longer protect them from the gang warfare of narcotics traffickers.

Shootings, kidnappings, extortion and threats have shattered the relative peace of Zacatecas, a central mountainous state that sends a greater proportion of its people as migrants to the United States than almost any other.

The unrest has disrupted immigration patterns, brought the local economy to its knees, destroyed small-town life and now threatens the upcoming planting season in an area that relies heavily on agriculture.

"They are impotent," Lorenzo Marquez, a merchant, said of the authorities. From the market stall where he sells cheese, sausage and jalapeno peppers, he has watched too many incidents of thugs hauling people away at gunpoint in broad daylight. "And we the people are even more impotent."

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'Criminal groups'

Carlos Pinto, the powerful interior minister for Zacatecas, acknowledged that "criminal groups, every day more violent, are challenging the state."

"Our institutions are not proportionate to the needs," he said. "This problem grabbed us without our police being ready or properly equipped."

Rodolfo Garcia Zamora, a researcher at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas, says that immigration may increase from the state, and that citizens left here could take the law into their own hands.

"The threat is of social and political decomposition in Zacatecas, and in the nation, in which the authorities remain subordinated and violence is the norm," he said. "The situation has overtaken the government and its institutions."

Zacatecas has long been a corridor for smuggling routes from central Mexico northward, with the trafficking gangs from the Pacific state of Sinaloa in control of most activity. Then, several years ago, violence surged as members of the so-called Gulf cartel and their hired guns, the Zetas, began moving in to challenge their Sinaloa rivals.

Criminal opportunists move in as well, taking advantage of the fear and collapse of law and order.

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The last straw

For the people of Villanueva, the last straw was the kidnapping last month of Roberto Garcia Cardenas, a retired professor in his 60s nicknamed El Pollero, the Chicken Man, for his part-time job selling chickens in the market. Garcia was also a money lender, a business that won him many properties, and many enemies.

Garcia's family was able to raise the 600,000 pesos (about $40,000) his kidnappers demanded. But when his children arrived to pay the ransom, the kidnappers seized them: a 24-year-old daughter who had given birth just a few weeks earlier, and a half-blind 17-year-old son. They sent Garcia out to gather a new ransom, this time more than 3 million pesos (about $200,000). "They threatened me and beat me," Garcia said of his kidnappers.

Garcia desperately drove through the streets of Villanueva, with megaphones on the roof of his car, offering to forgive the high interest he was charging if borrowers would pay the principal they owed. He tried to hawk some of his properties.

Eventually the children were freed in an operation that remains mysterious. The family, like most that have endured a similar ordeal, fled Zacatecas.

The Garcia story was only the most chilling in a long string of kidnappings. State prosecutor Ambrosio Romero said he registered 30 cases last year and six in January but acknowledged that far more cases are not reported. The perpetrators obtain information on their victims by surfing the Internet and often contact families in the U.S. to wire the ransom money. In some cases, kidnappers showed up with a public notary so the victim could sign over deeds to his properties.

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Place of migration

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