Published August 27, 2011
A little past midnight on a recent Friday, Manuel López, a 26-year-old lawyer, accidentally drives his beige Volkswagen Polo into a gun battle between rival drug gangs in the tourist resort of Acapulco. As bullets tear into his car, he hits the brakes and tries to run. He makes it less than a yard before falling dead.
Mr. López is the first victim of July 29, a hot summer day much like any other in Mexico's battle against powerful drug-trafficking gangs. Over the next 24 hours, at least 25 people die across Mexico in murders carrying the hallmarks of drug-gang hits.
Among the victims: three policemen, three 15-year-olds, one 14-year-old and a woman so thoroughly tortured that police can't estimate her age. The day ends in Ciudad Juárez with a 28-year-old woman holding the head of her younger brother as he bleeds to death outside their home.
Since President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006, declaring war on traffickers, roughly 43,000 people have been killed in drug-related homicides here, according to government figures and newspaper estimates. The pace of killings is escalating. More than half the dead, 22,000, were killed in the past 18 months, a rate of one every 35 minutes.
In just one attack this past Thursday, 52 people were killed—mostly women playing bingo—when gunmen torched a casino in the business capital of Monterrey.
The conflict between gang members has descended into a contest of cruelty. One gang in Acapulco removes the faces of its victims. Another in Monterrey hangs victims upside down, and alive, from bridges, then shoots them from below.
Places like Ciudad Juárez, one of the most violent cities in the world, keep a tally of the dead. But in other parts of Mexico, the murders aren't even counted up. Authorities and journalists in the northern border state of Tamaulipas, across from Texas, are so cowed by drug gangs that neither publicly reports drug-related homicides. Instead, people track drug murders on Twitter and other social networks.
Mexico's murder rate has more than doubled, to 22 deaths per 100,000 residents in 2010, in just four years, a period that parallels the drug war. Before that, it had been falling steadily. In the U.S. the murder rate is about 5 per 100,000.
A close look at the events of a single day shows that, while many victims appear linked to crime in some way, there are a surprising number of innocent victims, such as Mr. López, the lawyer killed just after midnight. And one fact stands out above all: Few of the deaths will be investigated.
Several hours after the young lawyer's death, the day's tally begins to climb.
8:34 a.m., Monterrey: Police find the tortured body of man in the Coyocán district bearing a tattoo with the name "Martinez" and a skull. A week later, his body lies unclaimed in the morgue. More than one in three victims from Mexico's drug war remains unidentified, according to a new study from Colegio Jurista, a Mexican law school.
12:45 p.m.: Two teens shot in Acapulco
8:45 a.m., Acapulco: Angel Joel Díaz, a 20-year-old taxi driver, is found in front of a cheap hotel with two bullets in his chest. No one knows why he was killed.
Acapulco: Innocent Bystander
Shots echo at 12:45 p.m. in Colonia Vista Hermosa, a poor neighborhood of concrete homes clinging to a hillside with sweeping views of the bay below. A Volkswagen Jetta careens to a halt near a stone wall, its occupants dead. The victims are Halan Marino Lagunas, 15, and Javier Leyva, 14, barely teenagers.
The two boys were high-school students who shared a love of cars and planned to be mechanics. They had set up a small workshop beside Javier's house where they learned the ropes by repairing neighborhood cars, sometimes for free, and spending hours on weekends poring over the workings of alternators and brake systems.
Just before the shooting, the two boys leave their garage for a quick errand to buy sodas and tortillas, says Halan's mother, Maria Magdalena Delgado. Hours later, the family finds the bullet-riddled Jetta.
Around sunset at the morgue, Halan's mother identifies the body of her son. Javier's mother can't bring herself to go into the room to ID her son. Instead his cousin, a young woman named Rosalinda Matías, enters the tiny office, which smells of the dead. In a moment of confusion, the staff shows her the wrong body, giving her hope that Javier might not be dead after all.
The hope doesn't last. The staff wheels out Javier's body. "It was bad," says Ms. Matías.
The police think the boys may have been mistakenly killed by gunmen who were looking for members of a rival gang driving a Jetta.
1:00 p.m., near Mexico City: The badly tortured body of an unidentified woman is spotted in a trash dump.
1:30 p.m., Michoacan.: Police find the corpse of a man suffocated by having tape wrapped around his face, a common tactic among drug gangs.
3:08 p.m., Monterrey.: A decomposing male body with gunshot wounds to the chest is lying along a dirt road. The body bears tattoos with the name Jesus, a marijuana leaf, a skull, a heart, and the words, "Pardon me, Little Mother, for the Life I Lead Without You."
Monterrey: Crooked Cops?
At 4 p.m., Edgar Hernández, 17, tells his mother he is going to get a haircut and hang out with a cousin, David Lemus, 15, and a friend, Erick Valdéz, also 15. Edgar plans to enter law school the following week.
By nightfall, Gil Ernesto Hernández, Edgar's father, grows worried that his son hasn't returned and tells his wife he's going out to look for him, according to police reports. Mr. Hernández, a police supervisor in one of the 13 districts of San Nicolas, a Monterrey suburb, two years ago won a policeman-of-the-month award. He was featured in a local newspaper receiving a $900 check, equivalent to a month's pay, from the mayor.
Around 11:40 p.m., gunshots are fired in a nearby neighborhood, according to Juan Obregón, who happens to be there at the time, smoking a cigarette on his front porch.
4 p.m.: Edgar Hernández, 17, disappears; his father's search ends in quadruple murder.
About 15 minutes later, police find the bodies of David Lemus and Erick Valdéz, the two 15-year-olds. Their hands are tied behind their backs and they have been shot in the head.
Minutes later, police respond to reports of another double murder nearby. There they find Gil Ernesto Hernández and his 17-year-old son Edgar, also dead, shot in the head in front of a school.
The mayor says Mr. Hernández's son was kidnapped earlier in the day, and Mr. Hernández had gone to pay the ransom when father and son were killed.
But in the days to come, Monterrey's newspapers fill with speculation that the dead were a gang of small-time burglars who broke into cars. Adding credence to the theory are two identical "narco-messages"—handwritten cardboard signs widely used by drug traffickers to take credit for the hits and warn off rivals—found by the two sets of bodies.
The messages read, "This will happen to all the rats. To the community: The Zs don't steal." The narco-messages are possible clues to the authors of the crime: the Zetas drug cartel. The fear inspired by the rise of the brutal Zetas, who claim Monterrey as a bastion, has spawned imitators who call themselves Zetas in order to terrify potential victims. The real Zetas, not amused, sometimes react by killing the fake Zetas.
The families of the dead strongly deny any of their relatives were linked to crime. A spokesman for the San Nicolas police department says there was no reason to suspect Mr. Hernández had ties to organized crime.
The speculation against Mr. Hernández has its roots in a country-wide problem of endemic police corruption. President Calderón has called it the biggest single hurdle in controlling organized crime.
"The most common targets of drug homicides are lookouts, police officers with links to drug gangs, and street drug dealers," says Adrián de la Garza, the attorney general for Nuevo León state, of which Monterrey is the capital. Nearly one in 10 drug-related homicides in the state so far this year are police, according to newspaper counts.
6:30 p.m.: A threat in Ciudad Juárez
6:30 p.m., Ciudad Juárez: Catalino Reyes, a 31-year-old mechanic, is working on a car outside his home, next to a playground filled with kids, when two men approach and fire 14 bullets. Mr. Reyes's wife and two children, six and seven years old, hear the shots and emerge from the house to find Mr. Reyes sprawled in a pool of blood. Behind the house, a spray-painted message, written a few days earlier, warns: "I know who you are."
7:10 p.m., Ciudad Juárez: A man's body is found stuffed into a blue drum.
Acapulco: Murder Goes Uninvestigated
The sun heads for the horizon at 7:30 p.m. in a small cove on Mexico's Pacific coast, a short walk from La Quebrada, the point where divers famously leap into the waves. Crowds of people are enjoying a Friday afternoon on the beach, drinking beers and eating ceviche.
Uriel Sanchez/Gutierrez Family
7:30 p.m.: Eduardo Gutiérrez gunned down near the beach; photo held by his father.
A pair of men at the restaurant Marisquería Tere won't make it until sunset. Gunmen pull up in a car and shoot one of them in the head. A second man at the restaurant, Eduardo Gutiérrez, 18, seems to know he's next and flees toward the beach. He, too, is shot and killed.
By the time police arrive a half-hour later, the beach is largely empty. Two men from a nearby food stand light candles and put them next to the first victim, whose body sits slumped in front of a half-empty Corona beer bottle.
Like most homicides in Mexico that appear to be drug-related, the killing is unlikely to be investigated. "I can assure you it won't be," says a municipal police officer on the beach that evening.
Only last month, the officer says, his own two daughters were kidnapped. They haven't been heard from since. He filed a complaint, he says, and not much has come of it. "If this is what happened to the municipal police officer, there is little chance for them," he says of the two dead men.
8:50 p.m., Monterrey: Two police officers on patrol, Mario Rivera and Ricardo Vallejo, are mowed down by bullets from a tinted-window SUV. Police speculate the officers were killed in revenge for city officials having cleared the street of vendors, who often pay protection money to drug gangs.
9:30 p.m., Culiacán, Sinaloa: Alfredo Barraza, the 31-year old owner of a small restaurant, Tamales del Alamo, is shot dead by a pair of gunmen as he pulls up to his home in his black Chevrolet truck.
11.03 p.m.: Police find the body of an unidentified man in his 20s outside Monterrey. The victim is gagged, his hands tied behind his back with a yellow plastic strip. He has been shot in the head.
Ciudad Juárez: Argument With the Wrong Man
It is 11:15 p.m. and Edgar Acosta, 24, sits on the curb across the street from his house, drinking a beer with Carlos Pérez, 24, and Alejandro González, 21. The three have been best friends since secondary school, a family member says, "closer than a fingernail on a finger."
Mr. Acosta was by all accounts a quiet young man employed for seven years washing dogs at the nearby Los Parques Veterinary. Hours earlier, the vet, Pedro González, recalls chiding Edgar as he left work, telling him to arrive on time the next morning and not stay up too late with Carlos and Alejandro.
"I think I'll turn up at noon," Edgar joked to him in reply.
That night, the three friends discuss a favorite topic, according to family members: How to get a U.S. visa and escape the violence of Juárez. As they talk, neighbors overhear one of them say:
"Hey, look, it's that guy," motioning to a man approaching on foot.
Edgar's father, Inocente, hears the gunshots from inside the house. He runs out the front door to find his son and two friends bleeding to death on the sidewalk, surrounded by 14 bullet casings.
Edgar's older sister Griselda races to his side. Griselda, a 28-year-old lawyer, cradles Edgar's head for the next few minutes as his breathing slows and then stops.
11:15 p.m.: Edgar, Carlos and Alejandro die.
Alejandro is still breathing. He tries to say something to Griselda but struggles to form the words. Griselda asks the gathered neighbors if someone will please drive Alejandro to the hospital. They refuse, frightened by stories of hit men who drive to hospitals to finish off wounded victims. Alejandro hangs on another few minutes, then dies.
Workers at a car wash where Alejandro and Carlos worked think they know what happened. Carlos had gotten into an argument with a stranger at a nightclub—a stranger who, in retrospect, appears to have been a hit man.
Ciudad Juárez police, overwhelmed with work, haven't investigated the triple homicide, according to family members of the three victims. That's not unusual. Data from Ciudad Juárez's prosecutors office shows only 5% of homicides end up with someone accused of the crime.
Ciudad Juárez mayor Hector Murguía says the police can't investigate every murder, so they focus on the highest profile cases. He credits the city's new hard-charging police chief, a former army colonel, with the decline in killings this year. "We are changing things," the mayor says.
This year, murders in Ciudad Juárez have declined to six per day from eight per day last year.
That compares with about 1.4 per day in New York, a city with 10 times the population.
11:55 p.m., Ciudad Juárez : A body is tossed out of a car at an intersection. The dead man's head is wrapped tightly in tape.