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Mexico drug trade staying at home

Denver Post, By Colin Mcmahon, Chicago Tribune, September 24,2006

URUAPAN, Mexico - The scourge of the drug trade is hardly new to Mexico. But the country has never been hit so frequently, so gruesomely and so close to home.

A black croos and the word "justice" painted on a lamp post in Ciudad Juárez, MexicoAmid a string of ghastly attacks by international traffickers, Mexico is also struggling to confront an alarming rise in drug use by its own people.

More of the cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamines and even heroin that once went exclusively to eager clients in the United States are staying in Mexico. And that domestic trade has contributed to a wave of violence so mean that the U.S. Embassy this month issued a travel advisory for Americans across Mexico.

Not only are the traditional hot spots along the U.S.-Mexico border vulnerable. The tourist resort of Acapulco has been badly bloodied as well. And here in the central state of Michoacan, police have recorded more than a dozen decapitations this year alone.

Narcotics are tearing at a social fabric already under strain from the ills many Mexican families know too well: poverty, joblessness, crime and broken homes.

"Retail drug trafficking is already a reality," said Pedro Isnardo de la Cruz Lugardo, a political analyst at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "A trap has been built with the crisis of values, the increase in families with divorced parents, the rise in leisure time and the lack of any guidance from the government.

"We're talking about a market that is socially and politically undermining, but that by definition is very lucrative." De la Cruz Lugardo said narcomenudeo, the word Mexicans coined to distinguish the small domestic drug trade from the large international one, has deeply penetrated urban areas. Children already hooked on methamphetamine or other drugs can be found in at least 20 percent of Mexico City schools, he said.

But while Mexicans use different words for the different types of drug trades, the line dividing the two is not so distinct.

The Gulf and Sinaloa cartels, currently locked in a bloody and increasingly personal war over trafficking routes to the United States, do not care much about who specifically sells crack, pot or meth in the main plaza of Uruapan.

Yet those same cartels are increasingly intent on developing the internal market. And the drugs they use as currency in supplying the United States and Europe are filtering down to the streets of Mexico's cities and towns.

"There are no direct links between the top gangsters and the small gangs," said Jorge Fernandez Menendez, a Mexico City journalist who is one of the nation's top authorities on narcotics. "But the drugs used to pay the hit men, the operators and the police who work for the cartels end up in the hands of the local gangs. There is a symbiosis." Uruapan and its 600,000 people are getting hit from both ends.

State police say the local drug trade has grown significantly. In mid-September, they arrested an Uruapan man with a large supply of marijuana they believe was for local sale.

"Before we saw ourselves merely as a country of passage, but now we see that this is a country of consumers, too," said Ramon Ponce Ponce, the state of Michoacan's top prosecutor in Uruapan. "Drug use has gone up a lot in the last three years." The wider drug trade is battering Uruapan as well.

In the early hours of Sept. 6, a group of masked and heavily armed men stormed into the Sun and Shadow nightclub, ignoring the bouncers and the large sign that reads: "No guns. No weapons. No uniforms." They rounded up the 70 or so patrons, led them all to the dance floor where salsa and marimba music were being played, ordered them to lie on the ground and then opened up a black plastic bag.

Out rolled five severed heads, still moist with blood.

The gunmen then deposited a written warning: "The family does not kill for money, it does not kill women, it does not kill innocents.

Only those who should die, die. . . . This is divine justice." Two days later, another six recipients of the drug trade's brand of divine justice were found in a place common enough to have its own name: a "narcograve." The men's throats had been slit. Their bodies showed signs or torture.

Ponce said state and federal authorities have identified all but two of the dead. And while it was probable that the deaths were linked to the international drug trade, Ponce said police were still investigating.

The grisly late show at the Sun and Shadow brought to