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Saturday, July 01, 2006

Vicious drug war looms for Mexico election winner

TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) - Hitmen strafe two women with machine guns, severed heads are dumped in garbage bags near the U.S. border and outside public offices in Acapulco, a police chief is gunned town in a Caribbean tourist resort.

The grisly murders, all in the past week, are among the latest in an increasingly savage and spectacular wave of drug gang violence sweeping across Mexico as the country heads to the polls in a presidential vote on Sunday.

The dead are victims of an all-out war between rival gangs for control of the multibillion-dollar cocaine, marijuana and amphetamine trade to the United States which has killed more than 1,000 people in the past year.

While jailing drug kingpins has been a main goal for outgoing President Vicente Fox during his six years in office, the issue has been placed firmly on the back burner during campaigning.

Mexicans are appalled by the violence but most of the deaths appear to be a settling of scores between rival gangs and corrupt police officers linked to them. That reduces the immediate pressure on politicians to fix the crisis, and the cartels are so powerful it is unclear how they can beaten.

Nowhere is spared. The butchers struck in the swank coastal resort of Acapulco on Friday, where two severed heads were dumped outside state offices, and in the tin-roofed shanty towns ringing gritty cities on the U.S. border.

This week, two women were killed in burst of assault rifle fire in Tijuana, south of San Diego, while days earlier 70 heavily armed enforcers lured three policemen and a civilian into an ambush and chopped off their heads.

"It's tough going out on the streets. You just don't know what's going to happen," said Tijuana dentist Maritza Salcido. "Almost every day there are robberies, kidnaps and executions like those of the policemen."

Leftist front runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and ruling party rival Felipe Calderon have sparred over job creation, graft and the economy, while plans to crack down on Mexico's rampaging drug outlaws have been left until later.


Fox himself vowed in March to extradite several jailed cartel bosses to the United States within weeks and warned that it could lead to a violent backlash. But he has yet to do anything as polling day looms.

As the killings mount, with the deputy police chief in the Caribbean playground of Cancun the most high-profile victim picked off in recent days, analysts say it is an issue that will confront whoever wins on Sunday.

"Even though drug trafficking violence hasn't figured large in the campaign, at some point in the next administration it will reemerge as a very urgent problem," analyst Jorge Chabat told Reuters.

Experts say the daily round of blood letting stems from Fox's success in jailing leaders of the powerful Tijuana and Gulf cartels, Benjamin Arellano Felix and Osiel Cardenas, which created a power vacuum on the U.S. border.

The ruthless Sinaloa cartel led by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman stepped up to the plate, winning control of much of the jailed drug lords' crumbling empires in a spiraling war that has left bullet-riddled bodies in the streets of cities nationwide.

As the battle rages on, analysts say Fox may have decided to put off extraditing the capos to avoid a repetition of the bombings and shootings that convulsed Colombia after it opted to send its cocaine barons to the United States in the 1980s.

"In Colombia, (the cartels) reacted very violently to extraditions, and if President Fox extradited these guys before the elections, the possibility of some kind of incident would be very high," Chabat said.

The man who replaces Fox as president will have to grasp that nettle, and also figure out how to curb the Sinaloa cartel, emerging amid a blaze of gunfire as the dominant force across the U.S.-Mexico border -- a region jealously watched by Washington.

"Whereas the Colombian cartels have lowered their profiles, and are less violent since the 1990s, the opposite is happening in Mexico," said Victor Clark-Alfaro an academic and analyst in Tijuana.

"We have one powerful gang emerging, and carrying out ever- more ruthless acts of violence right on the U.S.' doorstep, and that will not sit well with Washington," he added.
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