Cuernavaca - The military offensive waged by the conservative government of President Felipe Calderón against drug cartels in northern Mexico has resulted in an appalling death toll and grief-stricken relatives mourning the victims, many of them civilians caught in the crossfire. Now the drug war is beginning to affect the capital, which had so far escaped the worst of the violence.
In the state of Morelos, adjacent to Mexico City, the social fabric has been unravelling ever since a drug lord dubbed the "boss of bosses", Arturo Beltrán Leyva, was killed at an upscale condominium complex in Cuernavaca, in an operation involving approximately 200 Mexican marines in December 2009.
Photographs of his bloodstained body, covered with bank notes and with his trousers pulled down, appeared in the media.
The cartel boss's death unleashed a grisly war of succession in Morelos, where several notorious drug lords kept luxurious properties.
The number of homicides committed in Morelos in 2010 was three times higher than the figure for 2009, and the death toll doubled again in the first quarter of 2011. The gruesome murders included bodies found hanging upside down from a bridge.
Cuernavaca, the capital of Morelos state, has become the fifth most violent city in the country, and crime rates have soared in 27 of the state's 33 municipalities. Morelos, with its hundreds of hot springs and dozens of spas and resorts, used to be a favourite holiday venue for Mexico City residents, but now the escalating violence is keeping visitors away.
According to Morelos police records, extortion cases rose twofold in 2010. The restaurant industry reported a 70 percent drop in sales, and hoteliers said occupancy rates had fallen by 50 percent. Industry associations estimated the violence had caused one fifth of their members to go out of business.
"We've become another Ciudad Juárez," people say in Cuernavaca, known as "the city of eternal spring." Ciudad Juárez, on the border with the United States, is one of the most violent cities in the world.
The fear in Morelos is palpable. Ordinary citizens, journalists, business owners and community leaders will only talk about the violence on condition of anonymity.
Very few dare to report crimes. According to the 2010 National Survey on Insecurity, only 17 percent of murders committed in this state are officially recorded, either because they were never reported, or because the authorities deemed the evidence insufficient to warrant an investigation.
Drug traffickers imposed their own curfew in Cuernavaca Apr. 19, 2010, and as a result the authorities closed public offices early. An email circulated the same day listed the names of 27 "traitorous narcojournalists," threatening to "kidnap, execute, dismember and bury them."
In mid-2010, a number of business executives attended security training courses, seeking to protect themselves from violent attacks. They learned how to adopt a low profile, dress inconspicuously and vary their routines, vehicles and working hours.
However, none of this was promoted officially by the local government. The information was passed around by word of mouth between friends and colleagues, and via social networks on the internet.
"We have lived through very nasty experiences. The situation is much worse now than in the 1990s," said a social activist who was one of the leaders of the movement that campaigned for the resignation of then governor of Morelos, Jorge Carrillo Olea, in 1998. She wished to remain anonymous while speaking to IPS.
Organised crime began to take root in the state of Morelos in 1995, when there was a spate of over 150 kidnappings. Judicial investigations over the next two years concluded that the head of the anti-kidnapping squad, a state prosecutor and the head of the judicial police were directly involved in the abductions, and Carrillo Olea was forced to resign.
Amid the political furore, then Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000) promised: "We will not allow Morelos to continue to be a filthy rats' nest."
In 2000, Morelos voters turned their backs on the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and elected the conservative National Action Party (PAN), President Calderón's party. But collusion between criminals and the police has not ceased.
In 2004, the general coordinator of the Ministry of Public Security police investigations, José Agustín Montiel, was arrested and eventually sentenced to 33 years in prison for protecting drug lord Juan José Esparragoza.
In May 2009, under incumbent Morelos state governor Marco Antonio Adame, federal police arrested the state chief of police, Luis Ángel Cabeza de Vaca, for allegedly providing protection for Beltrán Leyva.
Governor Adame appointed a retired military officer, Gastón Menchaca, as the new state chief of police. But he was dismissed Apr. 10, 2011 because of the public outrage over several murders, including that of Juan Francisco Sicilia, the son of poet Javier Sicilia.
"The problem was never dealt with effectively," a local journalist said. "There has been a turnover of governments and public officials, but the network of complicity and impunity remains intact. Drug traffickers merged with kidnapping rings and gangs of car thieves, and ultimately the Beltrán Leyva case blew everything wide open."
According to experts, the South Pacific and Gulf drug cartels are engaged in a turf war in Morelos. Both their top bosses have taken up residence in the metropolitan area of Mexico City.
Organised crime gangs recruit youths from poor neighbourhoods in municipalities like Jiutepec, adjacent to Cuernavaca. For example, last year a 14-year-old boy from that neighbourhood achieved instant notoriety as a hired killer in the service of the Gulf cartel.
In Morelos, the murder rate for teenagers aged 15-17 is higher than the national average, at 10.2 per 100,000 population in that age range, compared to the national rate of eight per 100,000, according to 2008 statistics in the report "La Infancia Cuenta en México" (Children Count in Mexico) by the Mexican Network for Children's Rights. Two years earlier, the teenage murder rate was 6.1 per 100,000.
This is why Javier Sicilia, a new leader of the movement opposing Calderón's militarisation of the drug war, is accusing the Morelos state governor and legislators and the mayors of the municipalities of Jiutepec, Temixco and Cuernavaca, of gross negligence.
"How can you propose to stand as candidates in elections if you are unable to agree among yourselves to defend the lives of the sons and daughters of our beloved Mexico?" he asked the politicians.
Sicilia's movement, which has planned a national protest march May 5-8 from Cuernavaca to the Zócalo, the central square in Mexico City, received the support of Argentine human rights activist and 1980 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, who wrote a letter demanding that people who have been killed should not be branded indiscriminately as criminals.
"Comments like 'well, there must have been a reason,' or 'what were they mixed up in?' have been standard reactions to the forced disappearance of tens of thousands of people in Latin America," Pérez Esquivel said in his letter, which also calls for the world community not to take their eyes off Mexico, and keep seeking alternative solutions to put a stop to "the genocide."