Drug Cartels Bring Rivalry and Death to Southern Mexico

Times Staff Writers

Death surprised Julio Carlos Lopez Soto near the beach as he stepped out of the swanky La Mansion steakhouse, where the meat is grilled on tabletops overlooking the Pacific.

Death came to police officer Raymundo Leyva in the hills that rise above Acapulco Bay, where the working people of this resort city live. He was shot 11 times.

A spreading conflict between rival drug cartels and the police is bringing the gangland-style violence of Mexico’s northern border to the southern states of Michoacan and Guerrero.


At least 200 people have been killed in “narco-violence” in the two states this year, a record number for the region. The violence is being driven, officials say, by competition over local opium poppy and marijuana plantations and a growing number of laboratories producing methamphetamine.

The public assassinations are a new phenomenon in a region where drug cultivation has long been a bucolic activity practiced in verdant mountains while police turned a blind eye. Now police officers are turning up dead in unprecedented numbers, and their stations are being attacked by hit men wielding fragmentation grenades.

“I thought after the first funerals that would be it, but there’s been so many more,” said Alberto Lopez Rosas, Acapulco’s mayor. Nine police officers have been killed in the city this year. Only one was killed last year. “We don’t have an elite police force here,” the mayor said. “Our officers are from the common people.”

Across Mexico, more than 2,000 people have been killed as two cartels battle over drug production areas and points of sale, known here as plazas: the Gulf cartel, based in the border state of Tamaulipas, and the Sinaloa cartel, named for the Pacific state in which it is based.

The two cartels appear to have brought their rivalry southward. That worries Lopez Rosas, who fears that more shootings will chase away the tourists on which Acapulco depends.

“What Acapulco sells is not just the ocean and the beach,” he said. “It sells tranquillity.”

Two hundred miles inland from Acapulco’s tropical beaches, the highest-ranking police officer in Michoacan was assassinated in September in a hail of bullets from an AK-47. Rogelio Zarazua Ortega was celebrating his birthday with his wife and two dozen guests in the state capital, Morelia, when he was killed.

On Oct. 15, in the port city of Lazaro Cardenas, two more high-ranking police commanders and an officer were slain with AR-15 and AK-47 assault rifles, the latter a signature weapon of the drug cartels. It is known in the local slang as el cuerno de chivo, the goat’s horn, for the shape of its bullet clip.

“The presence of these types of weapons and of the types of attacks we’ve seen show a clear desire to send a message,” said Gen. Juan Edilberto Salinas, head of public security for the state of Guerrero, where Acapulco is located.

Salinas won’t comment publicly on what that message might be. “The federal authorities are in charge of investigating these cases,” he said. “And they don’t share information with us.”

But privately, federal and state officials here say they have little doubt that at least one of Mexico’s most powerful drug gangs is involved: the Sinaloa cartel, run by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, which has traditionally controlled the drug trade along Mexico’s southern coast.

In Acapulco, in addition to the slain police officials, a dozen more people have been shot in what the local media call “settling of accounts” attacks. In Michoacan, local media have reported at least 181 drug-related executions and assassinations this year.

But many local officials have sought to play down the danger to public safety.

“Michoacan is safe,” said Miguel Arellano Pulido, the state’s chief prosecutor. “There are fewer homicides in Michoacan, [but] the homicides we have are committed with greater violence and in public places.”

Mario Bautista, the newly appointed director of public security in Michoacan, was on duty the day his predecessor, Zarazua, was assassinated at his birthday party.

“I was on patrol, supervising my personnel,” Bautista said. The radio announced shots fired, and at least two people killed.

“I went there as fast as I could. My biggest surprise was when I got there and I saw [one of the dead] was my son.”

Cesar Bautista was a local police officer assigned to Zarazua’s security detail, which was stationed outside the restaurant. After the gunmen killed Zarazua at the lunch table, they fled outside and exchanged gunfire with his bodyguards, killing the younger Bautista.

“He was a very serious, very quiet young man,” Bautista said of his son, his face tightening. “He was given the responsibility of guarding Zarazua.... He was very loyal. So much so that unfortunately he died close to the person who had given him that trust. And he died in the best situation you can: defending an ideal, defending his people.”

Bautista called the assassination of Zarazua, who had led local police in several high-profile raids of methamphetamine labs, a cowardly act.

“They did it because they discovered a man who did his job and who hurt them ... and that made them angry,” Bautista said.

In Acapulco, the August killing of Lopez Soto outside the La Mansion restaurant remains clouded in mystery and innuendo. Two days before he was killed, local police called to a traffic accident had stumbled upon an arms cache inside one of the crashed cars.

The drivers fled, but officers followed them to an Acapulco home, where they discovered, among other things, eight AK-47s, an MP-5 submachine gun and six fragmentation grenades, according to an account in the Mexico City newspaper El Universal.

Three men were detained outside the home by a police detail led by Lopez Soto. Later, it was discovered that the residence was being rented by Edgar Alonso Villarreal, an operative of the Gulf cartel, and its leader, Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen.

The detained men were released three hours later for lack of evidence. The following day, Lopez Soto transferred and reassigned several police commanders. Hours later, he was killed.

Two days after the slaying, one of Lopez Soto’s bodyguards appeared and told reporters that Gulf cartel hit men had told him they killed Lopez Soto because he had received $500,000 from their rivals, the Sinaloa cartel.

Was the bodyguard’s statement true, Acapulco residents wondered, or just a ruse?

“There’s a lot of false information out there, to try and confuse the investigations,” said Salinas, the Guerrero security chief.

For the time being, Guerrero officials are working quickly to get their police force the kind of heavy weaponry that is starting to show up in the hands of local criminals, Salinas said.

Local police in Mexico are not generally permitted to use automatic weapons, he said, and most police in Guerrero have never used them. That will change soon. Guerrero is rushing to train its first special weapons and tactics unit to face the new threats.

At Acapulco’s City Hall, Lopez Rosas said the violence had not affected the local tourist trade: 5 million visit the city each year. Most people who come will not see the army’s tanks, he said, which only rarely venture into the tourist hot spots.

Still, the mayor worries.

“We’ve never been known for being a place where so many executions take place,” he said. “We’re hoping it doesn’t take root here. Acapulco has no other way to live besides tourism.”

Tobar reported from Acapulco and Chilpancingo, Mexico, and Martinez from Morelia.