Toll mounts in Mexico’s drug war

Times Staff Writers

The death toll in Mexico’s drug war has surpassed 2,000 this year, with a newspaper editor found dead in the resort city of Zihuatanejo and a police commander assassinated in Tijuana apparently among the latest victims, according to news reports.

Another police commander was killed Monday in the northern city of Monterrey, and four people were reported killed in the southern state of Guerrero.

No government agency keeps a tally of the drug-related killings, but according to human rights organizations and newspapers, an average of six people are killed in the country’s drug wars every day.

The newspaper El Universal said Saturday that its tally of drug-related killings for the year had reached 2,012. Last year, more than 1,500 people were killed in violence related to a lucrative trade in illicit drugs, including cocaine and methamphetamines.


The death Friday of Misael Tamayo Hernandez, the editor of the daily newspaper El Despertar de la Costa, appeared to be the sixth killing of a Mexican journalist this year, Reporters Without Borders said.

But in a country where drug killings are often public events -- a hail of bullets on a busy street, a decapitated head deposited on the steps of a government building -- Tamayo’s death was different.

He died before dawn in a Zihuatanejo hotel room, officials said. His sister Ruth Tamayo, who identified his body at the hotel, said he was neither shot, nor strangled with a towel, nor tied up and executed, as reported by various local media.

The editor was found with three puncture wounds on his shoulder, she said. The coroner established the cause of death as a heart attack, but could not rule out foul play until a toxicology report was complete, officials said.

“We still haven’t managed to understand what happened,” Ruth Tamayo said. “We’re very sad, our entire family is distraught. We still can’t believe it.”

Having last seen him Thursday morning, Tamayo’s family and co-workers became worried after he failed to show up at a 6:30 p.m. meeting at his newspaper. Within an hour, reporters and family members began searching for him.

“My brother never let the paper go to print like that,” Ruth said. “The newspaper was his passion. He was the kind to call in every 10 minutes to see how things were going.”

Days before he was found dead, the editor had written a column denouncing local corruption. Guerrero, which includes Zihuatanejo and Acapulco, has been ravaged by a battle between competing drug cartels and the police. Tamayo’s newspaper reported extensively on the violence.


Three days before Tamayo’s death, Mexican President-elect Felipe Calderon visited Zihuatanejo to deliver a speech to a foreign trade conference. He dedicated a part of his speech to addressing fears that the wave of drug-related violence might chase away foreign investment.

Calderon, set to take the oath of office Dec. 1, promised his government would not waver in its battle against drug violence.

“It’s going to take work, time and money” to win the battle, Calderon said. “And it will probably cost us human lives as well.... But there is no other alternative.”

In April, hit men left two severed heads outside a Guerrero state government building in Acapulco. “So that you learn to respect,” read a message scrawled on a red sheet left nearby. In October, two more heads were found on Acapulco’s beach.


In Tijuana on Thursday, more than 10 heavily armed men ambushed a police vehicle on a busy thoroughfare near downtown, killing one officer in a wild shootout that left a flower vendor and a taxi driver injured.

A police commander, Hector Gaxiola Gamez, narrowly escaped the attack. But the next morning, gunmen again caught up to the commander, and this time they didn’t miss. Gaxiola’s body, handcuffed to that of his brother, was found in an empty lot, disfigured by more than 100 gunshot wounds.

Gaxiola was the 19th law enforcement officer to be killed this year in Tijuana. Many were slain after the August capture of alleged drug lord Francisco Javier Arellano Felix, which many experts believe has triggered a battle for control of the lucrative narcotics trade in the city.

Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon blamed the media, saying a story erroneously identifying Gaxiola as a witness in the case of the killing of another police officer had led to his death.


“Are we becoming used to this being a ‘normal’ day in our country?” El Universal asked in a Saturday editorial, as the paper reported on the deaths of Tamayo and Gaxiola.


Times staff writer Richard Marosi in Tijuana contributed to this report.