Vigilantes enter Mexico's drug war

Mutilated bodies scattered on streets of Veracruz; group calling itself Zeta Killers claims the credit

The discovery of 35 bodies in a tourist zone in the coastal resort city of Veracruz on September 20 may have once again startled Mexicans who have grown accustomed to the daily finds of mutilated victims from an ongoing drug war. But this time, the circumstances, facts and details behind the killings, which have surfaced over the course of a several weeks, add a terrifying component to an already bloody and weary war against the narcotics cartels.

A vigilante group, which appears ready to take the law into its own hands, has now surfaced. On that Tuesday morning, in broad daylight, the 35 bodies - naked with their hands tied, some showing signs of torture - were strung across one of Veracruz's main avenues along with signs that read: "For Z." According to investigators, the "Z" refers to Los Zetas, the dangerous and powerful drug cartel that since 2008 has controlled narcotic routes in Veracruz state, located on the Gulf of Mexico.

Another sign warns residents against allowing anyone to extort them: "If you do, it is because you want to be extorted."

The macabre scene of the killings was discovered just one day after 32 inmates escaped from three local prisons. Two days later, 14 other bodies were found in similar circumstances, left outdoors in different parts of the state capital. Surprisingly, the executions had taken place when security was tight in Veracruz for a convention of prosecutors and judges that was being held.

At first, Veracruz authorities believed that the victims were the escaped inmates, but later said they were common criminals. Veracruz Governor Javier Duarte, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), had this to say: "They were criminals who were bound to meet a tragic end."

But this time things were different. A group calling itself Mata Zetas (Zeta Killers) took credit for the murders on an internet posting. Nevertheless, the local daily Notiver, identifying the victims by name, reported that the executed men and women were mostly aged between 15 and 30, and that there were five minors among them. The daily also said that one of them was a transsexual, known as Brigeth, who was very popular among the gay community.

While law enforcement authorities took back their original assertion that the victims were escaped inmates or common criminals, they also denied the Notiver report.

The Veracruz daily has recently been a target for the cartels. In June, managing editor Miguel Ángel López Velasco and his wife were shot dead while they slept. A month later, police discovered the decapitated body of Yolanda Ordaz, a police reporter at the newspaper.

As of Tuesday, neither local government authorities nor prosecutors have given any clues in the ongoing murder investigations. No one has been arrested in connection with the crimes.

The Mata Zetas made their debut on YouTube on July 24 with a video showing five members dressed in black with their faces covered. They described themselves as part of the Jalisco Nueva Generación cartel. It is not known whether these vigilantes, as they call themselves, are actually another cartel fighting for control of Veracruz.

Veracruz is one of the Mexican states that has suffered most this year from drug-related violence. According to the Mexico City daily Reforma, which keeps statistics, murders in Veracruz have jumped from 52 in 2010 to 208 so far this year.

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