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Barbaric drug war to test new Mexican president

YahooNews, November 30, 2006

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 scrupulous traffickers.

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 bullets.

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.

DRUG BATTLEGROUND

"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 bazooka.

"The drug-traffickers have better weapons than the army," said Gustavo Tinejero, an accountant in Apatzingan. "(Calderon) is going to have to get tough."

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."