APATZINGAN, Mexico (Reuters) -
Taming bazooka-wielding drug traffickers whose turf
war has littered a once tranquil state with corpses
and severed heads will be one of Felipe Calderon's
toughest tasks as Mexico's new president.
A fight raging between local gangs allied to
Mexico's main drug cartels has killed more than 500
people in Michoacan this year, according to local
media tallies that make the western state the
country's most violent.
"They kidnap them, they hang them from the trees
and they leave them in pieces in bags," a housewife
in her 60s said, recounting recent score settlings
in the sun-baked main square of Apatzingan, a
lowland town at the center of the battle.
The gangs have become so bold that one of them,
known as "The Family," took out advertisements in
Michoacan local papers last week claiming it was the
upholder of law and order against other, less
Calderon, a native of Michoacan who takes office
on Friday, has promised a firm hand against drug
gangs, also at war along the U.S.-Mexican border and
in the Pacific resort of Acapulco.
"We voted for Calderon to see if he can change
all this," she the housewife, refusing to give her
name for fear of reprisals as a pick up truck loaded
down with heavily armed police rumbled past. "Let's
hope he doesn't let us down."
Five people were killed near the northern
industrial city of Monterrey on Wednesday in an
attack by hitmen with automatic weapons.
One of the dead was a woman on a bus hit by stray
The violence has spread through much of Michoacan,
a region of spiky volcanoes and misty cloud forests
that sweeps down through hot, arid valleys to a
Pacific coastline strategic for drug-traffickers
shipping cocaine to the United States.
"Michoacan is No. 1 in Mexico in 2006 for police
murders and that fact alone is indicative of the
urgency for authorities to pay attention to the
narco trafficking situation in that state," said a
senior U.S. drug official.
In the most shocking incident yet, some 20 men
from "The Family" blasted their way into a seedy
nightclub in the avocado-growing town of Uruapan in
September and tossed five severed heads onto the
dance floor to warn rivals.
With its tree-lined main square and gaudy
billboards, Apatzingan looks like any dusty Mexican
farming town. But car dealers showing off top-end
SUVs and a surplus of luxury pickup trucks with
darkened windows hint at not-so-hidden wealth.
The humpback hills of the remote Sierra Madre
mountains that overlook Apatzingan hide marijuana
and opium poppy farms, landing strips for light
aircraft bringing cocaine from Colombia, and more
recently makeshift methamphetamine labs.
In July, soldiers and federal officers stormed
Apatzingan, arresting its entire nearly 200-strong
local police force on suspicion of collusion with
traffickers, but the move seems to have done little
to dent the narcos' control of the area.
Five federal police officers and a public
prosecutor were killed earlier this month on their
way to an investigation in the nearby narco
stronghold of Aguililla after as many as 20
assailants ambushed them with assault rifles and a
"The drug-traffickers have better weapons than
the army," said Gustavo Tinejero, an accountant in
Apatzingan. "(Calderon) is going to have to get
The president-elect says he wants to train police
officers better, reform the justice system and form
a national data base to fight crime.
Some say only a greater military presence in
Michoacan can halt the trafficking and violence but
others urged Calderon's new government to pump money
into the area.
"The only industry here is drugs. We need sources
of employment," said Enrique Gamez, a 59-year-old
Apatzingan industrial engineer. "This is not a war,
this is a social problem."