Has the border drug war infiltrated the heart of Mexico City?
Recent decapitations and killings have residents on edge over whether local street gangs are mimicking cartel-like violence in the nation's capital.
Two headless bodies are dumped on a street in suburban Mexico City along with a message sent by a mysterious group called "The Hand with Eyes." Days later, a severed head shows up in a car abandoned outside an elementary school in the same suburb.
For drug lords, this sprawling metropolis of 20 million has been a favorite hide-out and place to launder money, making Mexico City somewhat of an oasis from the brutal cartel violence along the border and in outlying states.
Now, authorities are batting down fears that a once-distant drug war is making its way into the capital. Instead, they say, the violence since late last year comes from street gangs fighting for an increasingly lucrative local drug market.
While drug use in Mexico City doesn't come close to that in the U.S., it has grown dramatically in the past decade. About 8 percent of middle and high school students here now experiment with drugs, said city drug addiction adviser Patricia Reyes, a number that has climbed from 2.5 percent in 1998 according to national surveys.
Some of the high-profile violence comes from groups that are remnants of the Beltran Leyva cartel, which has splintered and moved closer to the city since the Mexican navy killed leader Arturo Beltran Leyva in December 2009. Others imitate cartel tactics to gain turf.
"I think of these groups as cells, as franchises," said Alfredo Castillo, attorney general for Mexico state, the suburban area surrounding Mexico City. "As franchises what do they want? They want the know-how, the business model, and in the end, they want their backing in case of an extraordinary problem."
The mass killings started late last year, when a drive-by shooting in the rough neighborhood of Tepito killed six youths and a family of five was slain in a drug-related attack in the south of the city.
The violence intensified earlier this year as Juan Vasconcelos, a reputed local gang assassin, allegedly went on a cocaine- and alcohol-fueled killing spree that ended with his arrest in February.
The first attack left five people dead on Jan. 8. Another killed eight people Jan. 16 and the third left seven dead Feb. 13.
Police say Vasconcelos has ties in Mexico state to La Familia cartel, based in the neighboring state of Michoacan. While that alliance wasn't fueling the violence -- Vasconcelos went after rival drug dealers and members of his own gang to consolidate his power -- it made it easier for him to get high-powered weapons.
When police asked in a taped interrogation what he did for a living, Vasconcelos replied, "I kill."
Then mutilated bodies started showing up, unheard of in the metro area, leading the news media to blame big cartels, including the vicious Zetas gang, and saying the military now patrols parts of the metro area like it does in border cities and other drug hot spots.
The Mexican army denied to The Associated Press that it has patrols in or around Mexico City.
"What we have here is drug dealing, and I'll say it again: Drug dealing is not considered organized crime," Mexico City Attorney General Alejandro Mancera was quoted by the newspaper Milenio as saying earlier this month. Mancera did not respond to several requests to be interviewed by the AP.
Mexico City, which still struggles with robberies and high kidnapping rates, has long been considered infested with crime. But murders are dramatically lower in the capital than in northern Mexican cities, where drug violence has been raging for at least four years, and people who long feared the city are now moving there to escape drug violence elsewhere.
Mexico City's homicide rate was about nine per 100,000 in 2010, lower even than many U.S. cities, including Washington, D.C., which had 22 per 100,000 last year, according to government statistics.
The northern border city of Ciudad Juárez had a staggering 230 per 100,000.
Because many of the country's wealthy live in the capital, it has long been a neutral place for traffickers to do business undetected and live with their families behind tall gates. According to a recent federal police report, six of the major drug gangs operate in all 16 delegations of Mexico City proper.
While they leave each other alone, the police go after them. Capos have been picked up while jogging in exclusive neighborhoods and caches of weapons have been found in mansions.
At least four top members of the powerful Sinaloa and Juárez cartels have been arrested in Mexico City, including the son of Sinaloa cartel boss Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada and the son of the now deceased Amado Carrillo Fuentes, founder of the Juárez cartel.
La Familia, a newer cartel formed in 2006, began expanding into the suburbs from Michoacan as President Felipe Calderon launched a crackdown on the cartel in his home state. Now, they have a presence northeast of the capital, where they run drug, extortion and car theft operations, Castillo said.
Still, the major cartels tend to lay low. There is a strong police presence, with 90,000 officers assigned to the 16 boroughs, plus the Mexico state police patrolling areas surrounding the city. The capital is also where the army, navy, and federal police are based, something that may inhibit traffickers from launching the brazen attacks seen in other places.
"There is an enormous reactive force concentrated in Mexico City and because of that, drug traffickers have to maintain a low profile," said Martin Barron, a crime expert at the National Institute of Criminal Justice, a government think tank.
But tensions and violence among local gangs have flared to new levels. So far the attacks are relatively few in number, but drug-related killings have increased from 135 in 2009 to 191 in 2010, according to the Mexican government.
One local gang in Mexico City, the Hand with Eyes, left the decapitated bodies of a man and a woman in the western suburb of Naucalpan in February, along with a note saying, "People of this plaza don't seem to understand it has an owner."
Days later, a car with a severed head on the dashboard and the rest of the body in the back seat was abandoned in the same area.
The new gang has been beheading local drug dealers who refuse to join its ranks, Castillo said.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.