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Masked troops replace tourists on new drug war frontline

VERACRUZ – In Mexico’s oldest port of Veracruz, known for outdoor squares which turn into late night dancehalls, balaclava-wearing soldiers patrol the country’s newest drug war front line.

The laid back atmosphere of the humid city on the Gulf of Mexico, with a metropolitan area of some 550,000 inhabitants, has been shattered after more than 80 bodies were dumped in less than a month, some showing signs of torture.

Federal forces in recent days began deploying across the state, also called Veracruz, although locals say crime and violence have been rising for months, amid rumors of murky deals between politicians and paramilitary drug gangs.

“There’s a lot of fear. You can feel it but people say nothing,” said a woman in her fifties on the street, declining to give her name, like many here.

The spectacular dumping of 35 bodies on a busy Veracruz city highway on September 20 came a day after breakouts from three state jails, followed by the dumping of almost 50 bodies around the city in the past week, according to officials.

Many have welcomed the federal troops, deployed in a similar move to others across Mexico under the controversial military crackdown on organized crime launched by President Felipe Calderon in 2006. Some 45,000 people are believed to have died in drug violence since then.

“The truth is the situation is very tough. You can’t spend too much time on the streets now,” said a young woman in Veracruz, adding she no longer stayed out after dark.

The government blamed the recent killings on the New Generation drug gang, which has suspected ties to the powerful Sinaloa gang and also calls itself the Zeta Killers, rivals of the notorious Zetas.

The Zetas drug gang — set up by ex-army officers turned hitmen in the 1990s — are blamed for spreading extortion, kidnappings and murders, particularly around the Gulf of Mexico, as well as influencing politicians.

Veracruz state governor Javier Duarte “inherited a government that was highly penetrated by the Zetas and many of those links will come up in the next few weeks,” according to Edgardo Buscaglia, an organized crime analyst at Mexico City’s ITAM university.

Duarte has struggled to convince that he can clean up the alleged corruption of his predecessor, Fidel Herrera, who was from the same Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) party which ruled Mexico for more than 70 years until 2000.

Many questions remain about where and how the recent killings took place after most crime reporters fled the state when three journalists were murdered, leaving many to rely on social networks for news on the ground.

A number of relatives have insisted the victims of the latest killings had no known criminal ties, while contradictory official statements provoked accusations of cover ups.

“It’s better that they give the information so visitors take precautions,” said Antonio Gamboa, a tour company representative sitting by a deserted booth on the Malecon, or boardwalk.

With hotels and cafe terraces emptying out, the key tourism industry suffered a drop of 30 percent of visitors this year so far, compared to 2010, according to the Coparmex business association.

The United States this week warned its citizens to be vigilant in the region, as federal forces were deployed.
Fernando Yunes, a local lawmaker from the PAN party of President Calderon, admitted the risks of sending in troops amid a growing tally of alleged military abuses during the nationwide crackdown.

“It’s a risk we have to take because of the difficult situation Veracruz is in. Why? Because we don’t have trustworthy state or local police,” Yunes told AFP.

Gilberto Gutierrez, the director of a traditional music center which had to cancel several recent events due to falling attendance, was less convinced.

“I don’t understand why they send troops in. In the United States they catch criminals using intelligence,” he said.

AFP

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© 2010 Sophie Nicholson. All rights reserved.