Spiraling drug-war violence in Mexico's wealthiest region has claimed the life of a prominent mayor — kidnapped Sunday and found dead Wednesday — and prompted demands from panicked residents for army protection.
Edelmiro Cavazos was mayor of Santiago, a picturesque tourist town near Monterrey, Mexico's third-largest city and an industrial hub. He was grabbed from his gated home late Sunday by at least 15 gunmen wearing uniforms of a defunct police agency who arrived in a convoy of sport-utility vehicles, with patrol lights flashing.
Cavazos and a bodyguard apparently left the home to see what the members of the convoy wanted. Both were overpowered and bundled into the vehicles. The guard was released a short time later.
Cavazos' bound, blindfolded body was found dumped alongside a rural road Wednesday morning, state prosecutor Alejandro Garza said.
Cavazos, 38 and U.S.-educated, represented the conservative party of President Felipe Calderon and won election last year, ending long domination of Santiago City Hall by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
Calderon condemned the "cowardly assassination" of the mayor and dispatched his top security official to the border state of Nuevo Leon, where Santiago and Monterrey are located.
State Gov. Rodrigo Medina, who arrived by helicopter at the site where the body was dumped, speculated that Cavazos might have been targeted because of his efforts to purge the notoriously corrupt local police, who are said to work on behalf of drug cartels.
Medina vowed to go after Cavazos' killers, and he urged the national government to send additional military and federal police troops to the state.
He was seconding a demand from a group of business leaders who took out full-page ads in numerous newspapers Wednesday, calling for one marine and three army battalions to be deployed to the area to combat drug traffickers who are "provoking panic, desperation and disillusion" throughout the region.
Affluent Monterrey and its surroundings have traditionally escaped much of the drug violence engulfing Mexico. But within the last year, a vicious battle between the Gulf cartel and its former paramilitary allies, the Zetas, has spilled into Monterrey and much of Nuevo Leon state.
Residents are being terrorized by kidnappings and broad-daylight gun battles. Repeatedly, gangsters have blocked main streets in Monterrey and other towns for hours to cut off their enemies or authorities.
Paralyzing the region, whose food, textile and construction industries account for 8% of Mexico's GDP, could have a disastrous effect on the national economy, experts and officials say.
"Mexico's fate is our fate, and the fate of Nuevo Leon is the fate of Mexico," Medina said.
Mauricio Fernandez, mayor of nearby San Pedro Garza Garcia, said Cavazos told him of receiving a threatening visit from traffickers shortly after taking office.
"I told him he needed to call on the army," Fernandez said in a radio interview. "He was frightened and had found a municipal government enormously in cahoots with organized crime."
Mayors, politicians and police commanders are frequent targets of cartel hit men. Mayors especially complain that they are vulnerable because they are often on the front lines of the battle but with few resources to defend themselves. They are also vulnerable to graft.
Killing Cavazos "is a direct challenge to authority," prosecutor Garza said.
This week, Garza announced the creation of police rapid-response units aimed at breaking up the street blockades set up by drug gangsters. The teams will be supported by helicopters, he said.
On Sunday alone, traffickers blocked Monterrey streets in at least 30 places. One resident wrote the Reforma newspaper a letter about getting caught in one of the blockades at 8:30 p.m. on the way home from her in-laws' house. People ran to escape their trapped cars; those not fast enough were beaten by gunmen.
"People were running and we could hear the explosions … the gunfire," the woman wrote. "Children were crying inconsolably, women were hysterical, men were carrying babies.... We were running and running and [husband] Juan was screaming at me, 'Run, don't stop, run, don't turn around, don't stop.'
"I was crying, screaming and begging for the mercy of God."