Violence extends its grip

The execution-style murder of a young El Monte civic leader in Mexico was viewed Friday as a stark sign of just how widely the country's savage drug violence has spread.

Bobby Salcedo, an assistant principal and school board member, had no ties to narcotics trafficking, his family and friends said. He is believed to be the first U.S. elected official killed in the 4-year-old spasm of carnage in Mexico.

Gomez Palacio, the city where he died, was once best known for its industry. But it has grown violent: Salcedo and the five men who died with him were among 11 killed in the city that night with signs of execution, according to media reports.

Salcedo had deep ties to the central Mexican city. The school administrator, who was born and raised in California, was a past president of the South El Monte-Gomez Palacio sister cities organization and raised money for scholarships, clinics, firefighters, orphanages and playgrounds.

He met his wife, Betzy, in 1999 when she went from Gomez Palacio to Southern California on a sister-city exchange student scholarship. They were visiting her family when he was hauled off and shot to death.

"I don't know if we lived in a bubble, but we never thought we would be targeted," said Salcedo's brother Carlos. "We were never looking over our shoulder."

But criminality and lawlessness have descended on Durango state, where Gomez Palacio is situated, like a pestilence, attacking the city of 240,000 people with ferocity. Last year, more than 600 people were killed in Durango, making it the fourth-deadliest state total in the country.

For immigrants from Durango in Southern California, the return home for Christmas was once a hallowed tradition. This year, however, the Federation of Durangan Clubs estimated travel home was off by as much as 60%.

"There's a lot of fear," said Carlos Martinez, the federation secretary. "People don't want to risk it."

Martinez said the federation was promoting a round-trip flight from Tijuana to Durango for $220, cheaper than the cost of a bus, but the airline canceled the flight because of a lack of sales.

Agustin Roberto "Bobby" Salcedo, 33, apparently wasn't very worried.

Joseph Vu, 34, a former co-worker and classmate of Salcedo, said they exchanged text messages hours before Salcedo was kidnapped. "He said he was going to have a few beers. That was it," said Vu, also an assistant principal at El Monte High School.

The Salcedos were dining with Betzy's former classmates at a bar called Iguanas Ranas, next to the Buchacas pool hall, Wednesday evening.

Shortly after midnight a group of armed and masked men burst into the bar and asked who owned a truck parked out front, investigators told The Times. No one claimed it so the gunmen went from man to man, slapping them around until zeroing in on Salcedo and five others. They were hauled away.

Their bodies were discovered several hours later, dumped in a field near a canal. Salcedo was killed by a single gunshot to the head and had apparently not been tortured, said an official in the state attorney general's office in Gomez Palacio, who did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to media.

Most of the other men had also been killed with a single gunshot, but two bore numerous gunshot wounds, suggesting they were the targets, the official said. None of the men killed with Salcedo had criminal records, but investigators suspect one or two might have been drug dealers.

No evidence indicates that Salcedo had been specifically targeted, authorities said.

Residents of Gomez Palacio expressed surprise that Salcedo would have ventured to the strip on Miguel Aleman Boulevard, which has a well-established seedy reputation. Its bars, pool halls and nightclubs have been the scene of kidnappings and shootouts, and the area is an easy place to buy drugs.

"I think he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and with the wrong people," one resident said.

At Mountain View High School in El Monte, where Salcedo was once student body president, then later football coach and assistant principal, he was remembered as an involved administrator, attending sporting events, dressing up on Halloween and exercising often on the school's track.

"He's helped every aspect of the school," said junior Justin Spence. "Everyone knew him."

Former El Monte Police Chief Ken Weldon described Salcedo as conscientious and hard-working, a "giver" and a leader. "This is a dagger in the hearts of a lot of people," he said.

Salcedo's brother Carlos said that his sister-in-law called Thursday to tell him his brother's body had been found. He was the first in his family to hear the news. He said his mother broke down. "She kept saying, 'They took my Bobby,' " he said. Salcedo said his brother's body probably will be returned Monday and the family is hoping to have a service Wednesday.

The spasm of drug violence that has gripped Durango in the last few years has been fueled by a dispute over the territory. The Sinaloa cartel and its leader, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, long controlled the area. But moving in from neighboring Coahuila are the Zetas, a ruthless gang that has splintered off the Gulf cartel in Mexico's northeastern border region.

One Southern California immigrant leader, who did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation, said people are routinely stopped at roadblocks run by well-armed men outside Santiago Papasquiaro, the town that serves as a gateway to the Durango sierra.

"They ask you, 'Which group are you from: ¿Los Zetas o Los Chapos?' " said the immigrant leader. "This happened to me twice. It's terrifying. The traditional Christmas trip home is over. We go now only when it's an emergency."

This violence has infected the once-peaceful lowland city of Gomez Palacio, which is both the state's wealthiest industrial hub and a distribution center for goods heading to the United States, a strategic point for the battling cartels.

In the last year, generalized criminality has set in across the city, encouraged by authorities' ineffectiveness, immigrants and residents say.

"It could be that a neighbor who doesn't have work calls up and extorts a neighbor," said Salvador Franco, president of the Gomez Palacio club in Southern California, who recently returned from the city. "They pretend to be traffickers or Zetas."

In the last year, many Gomez Palacio businesses have closed as their owners fled. Franco said he knew a family that received extortion and kidnapping threats and sold its two-bus transportation line and left for the United States.

"Things are serious," he said. "You have to be inside by 6 p.m. You can't be in a restaurant. You can't have a good car because you never know who's going to take it from you."

Martinez, the federation secretary, said extortion and kidnapping have become scourges of the city's middle-class business owners. He said a brother-in-law who is an architect moved his firm from an office to his house to avoid seeming wealthy and attracting attention. His brother ran a purified-water store for five years until receiving demands for weekly payment of protection money.

"Car lots, factories and restaurants have closed," Martinez said. "These are things you've never before seen in the state of Durango."

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sam.quinones@latimes.com

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Times staff writers Hector Becerra, Jessica Garrison, Anna Gorman, Ruben Vives and Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report. Wilkinson reported from Mexico City.

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