Mexico violence escalates as elections approach

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MEXICO CITY — With presidential and local elections slightly more than two weeks away, violence — some of it political, some of it part of a raging drug war — is surging in Mexico, with candidates killed, journalists snatched and major arrests threatening to touch off a wave of reprisals.

And in a sign of the profound corruption that a new president will face, a video released this week shows police officers marching men from a hotel in the middle of the night. The men turned up dead the next day, and the police are suspected of acting on orders from drug gangs.

In the coastal state of Veracruz, the body of reporter Victor Baez was discovered early Thursday in the main plaza of the state capital, Xalapa, hours after gunmen intercepted him as he left his newsroom.

Baez is the eighth journalist killed in Veracruz in the last year, and one of dozens killed or kidnapped across Mexico since the government of President Felipe Calderon launched a military-led offensive against powerful drug cartels. Many of the reporters killed, like Baez, covered the crime beat.

Journalists in Veracruz have said they think they are being targeted before the July 1 vote because the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, fears electoral losses in the region and doesn’t want coverage of campaign shenanigans. Residents in vote-rich Veracruz will choose, in addition to the president, members of the federal Congress and scores of local officials.

The PRI insists that it is running a clean campaign.

“This crime is intended to intimidate society and force the government to step back in its efforts to fight crime,” Veracruz government spokeswoman Gina Dominguez said at a news conference, where reporters wept openly.

Another journalist, Stephania Cardoso, was abducted last week with her 2-year-old son in the northern border state of Coahuila, and the two remain missing. Her home was found ransacked; nothing was stolen, her family said, but her work camera was smashed.

Also Thursday, the Mexican army presented to reporters an alleged top figure of the Zetas cartel whom authorities described as the “czar of contraband.” Gregorio Villanueva was suspected in a string of grenade attacks on schools, news organization offices and police installations, the army said.

His arrest followed a major crackdown by U.S. authorities this week on a vast money-laundering operation allegedly run by the brother of Zetas capo Miguel Angel Trevino. The Times reported in Wednesday’s editions that the brother, Jose Trevino Morales, his wife and five associates were arrested in raids across the Southern United States and charged with using a horse breeding and racing operation to launder millions of dollars in drug proceeds.

The U.S. government issued a warning that the arrests could trigger reprisal attacks and cautioned American citizens against traveling in border areas of Mexico.

The scandal is also threatening to engulf prominent Mexican businessmen, some of them with ties to the PRI, whose standard-bearer appears poised to reach the presidency, according to nearly all polls.

That candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, has disavowed the violence that is creeping into the election campaign. He and his convoy of supporters came under rock attack Tuesday in the city of Puebla. An activist with Calderon’s conservative National Action Party was killed in Chiapas state, allegedly by a PRI operative who has been arrested. And a candidate for the state legislature in Guerrero, Margarito Genchi of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, was killed Monday by unknown assailants.

Mexico’s next president will have to confront an insidious corruption that has often sucked law enforcement agents into the world of drug traffickers.

The security video released by authorities this week shows police in full regalia entering a hotel in Jalisco state, presenting a list to the receptionist and apparently demanding to know which rooms their targets were staying in. Minutes later, the video shows the police forcing three men dressed only in their underwear, one apparently blindfolded, into a vehicle. Their bodies were found later, beaten and strangled.

“The security personnel involved in this have been arrested,” Jalisco spokesman Tomas Coronado said. Apparently, the dead men were thought to have been working for the Zetas cartel. The police are suspected of working for their rival, the Sinaloa cartel.