Bodies are turning up in piles, hanging from overpasses, chopped up and thrown together in trash bags dumped by the roadside.
This is not Ciudad Juarez, the violence-battered Mexican city along the Texas border. This is the central state of Morelos, a normally quiet region known by many Americans as home to Spanish-language schools in the city of Cuernavaca.
Violence has increased in recent months, often in spectacularly grisly ways, due to a battle for control of the drug-trafficking operation once run by Arturo Beltran Leyva, who was slain by troops during a raid in Cuernavaca in December.
The fight appears to pit forces loyal to Beltran Leyva’s brother, Hector, against the late kingpin’s former top enforcer, Edgar Valdez Villarreal, a feared figure nicknamed " Barbie” for his blue-eyed good looks and notorious for his brutal methods. Both men are wanted by Mexican authorities.
Nearly 50 people have been killed this year in gun battles and gangland-style executions in Morelos, long known as a stronghold of the Beltran Leyva group, according to unofficial counts by newspapers.
Residents have grown panicky as the violence has worsened. Streets in Cuernavaca went unusually quiet last weekend after anonymous e-mail threats warned people to stay away from nightspots or risk being caught up in what the sender described as a hunt for rivals. Bars and discos closed as a precaution, but there were no reports of weekend violence.
Gov. Marco Adame has sought to reassure residents. “The street, our plazas and the night do not belong to the violent, to the criminals. They belong to respectable people,” he said Saturday.
Many of the killings have taken place around Cuernavaca, a popular weekend getaway 50 miles south of Mexico City that is known for year-round sunshine. An April 2 gunfight in the heart of downtown left two gunmen dead.
On April 13, the bodies of six young men, including three listed as 18 years old, turned up near the highway connecting Mexico City with the beach resort city of Acapulco. A handwritten sign directed Valdez to pick up his “trash.”
Three days later, authorities found parts of two bodies in a black plastic bag.
Many of the messages found alongside bodies have been signed “CPS,” the Spanish initials for Cartel of the South Pacific, a group that is believed to be controlled by Hector Beltran Leyva and his top aide, Sergio Villarreal Barragan.
The sudden outbreak of killing in Morelos underscores how violence has hop-scotched around Mexico since President Felipe Calderon mobilized the military in a crackdown on traffickers and other organized-crime groups in December 2006.
Since then, more than 22,000 people have died, largely as a result of turf wars between trafficking groups jousting for control of coveted smuggling routes into the United States.
The worst violence has occurred in Ciudad Juarez. But a separate wave of killings has swept the border states of Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas, to the east, as the Gulf cartel and two other ones wage war against former allies known as the Zetas. The feuding has ignited a spate of slayings around the industrial city of Monterrey, 140 miles south of the U.S. border.
A separate war rages in the western state of Michoacan between the Zetas and a group known as La Familia.
Fighting within the Beltran Leyva group “is one more front. It’s the last thing Calderon needs,” said George W. Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. “The situation is getting worse on the ground because you’ve got multiplying fronts.”
Calderon defends his anti-crime campaign as an essential fight to bring the rule of law to Mexico, but critics say it has failed to curb the power of drug cartels or rein in street violence.
The army has been accused of trampling on residents’ rights and become a lightning rod for criticism. On Tuesday, Senate committees were considering putting limits on use of the military in domestic police work.