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Shadowy group says it targets cartel; some in Veracruz are glad

The callers to the radio program were voicing their support for the Matazetas, the Zeta killers.

Better they fight among themselves. Let them kill each other. Anything to rid us of the thugs who long ago took control of our city and are slaughtering our people.

It is a sign of the desperation and deep outrage over surging drug-war violence that a shadowy group of vigilante killers is not only tolerated but welcomed by many here in Mexico's third-most populous state.

Full coverage: The drug war in Mexico

Yet it also comes with a disturbing question: Just who is behind the killings of Zetas — another drug gang? Agents acting on behalf of the government or military? An ad hoc group whose presence is being tolerated by authorities as well as the public?

Coastal Veracruz, the gateway to Mexico for centuries of immigrants from Europe and beyond, a laid-back beachfront vacation spot for legions of Mexicans, has in recent months become the latest state to be thoroughly sucked into the deadly and devastating drug war.

On Sept. 20, nearly three dozen half-naked bodies were dumped in broad daylight on a busy highway underpass in a well-to-do tourist area of the city of Veracruz. Fourteen more turned up a few days later — during a convention of the nation's top state and federal prosecutors. Then, on Oct. 6, barely 48 hours after announcing a major security offensive, military and police found an additional 36 bodies, and 10 more turned up the following day.

In videotaped presentations, a group of masked men with military bearing has claimed responsibility for the spate of killings, portraying it as a cleansing operation. Many of the bodies had a "Z" for Zeta written on the back with ink marker, a witness said.

The mystery group announced that it was in Veracruz state as "the armed branch of the people, and for the people."

"We are asking officials and authorities who support the Zetas to stop doing so, and let the armed forces know that our only objective is to finish the Zetas," the spokesman for the group told the camera. "We are anonymous warriors, without faces, proudly Mexican."

For years with the Zetas tightly in charge, and the public terrified into submission, the state had stayed relatively calm. But months ago, traffickers associated with top drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman are believed to have moved in from the north with an eye toward seizing territory from the Zetas, who had long controlled Veracruz's valuable routes for smuggling drugs, migrants and contraband.

The "Zeta killers" burst on to the scene shortly before President Felipe Calderon deployed fresh military forces into Veracruz this month.

Their sudden rise and the surgical precision with which the killers systematically picked off nearly 100 people in 17 days has led to conjecture among some people that they may be operating with implicit or direct support of the government or military. Some suggest that the June kidnapping, torture and killing of three marine cadets in Veracruz might have propelled the marine corps to begin acting outside the law. Officials dismiss such speculation, and others wonder why a group aspiring to be a clandestine death squad would post videos on YouTube.

Indeed, some point to Guzman's Sinaloa network, and say the military look to the killings may be an attempt to deflect attention.

If that's true, the Zeta killers would simply be the latest of the many cartel-affiliated paramilitary gangs that have been fighting in Mexico since the beginning of the offensive that Calderon launched against the cartels at the start of his administration nearly five years ago.

The Zetas themselves started as the private military arm of the Gulf cartel, hired gunmen recruited from army elite forces to fight and kill the cartel's enemies. They evolved into a full-fledged trafficking cartel after splitting violently from their former patrons.

Vigilante gangs purporting to be defending society and working with some level of official complicity have frequently acted in Mexico in recent years. La Familia in Michoacan, which surged in Calderon's southwestern home state in 2005, claimed that it was protecting residents from the Zetas.

In 2009, Mauricio Fernandez, mayor of the affluent city of San Pedro Garza Garcia near the northern industrial hub of Monterrey, announced the formation of "intelligence squads" to "cleanse" his jurisdiction of criminals. One particularly notorious thug turned up dead in short order.

In the Michoacan case, the federal government tried, and failed, to prosecute several officials for their ties to La Familia. And Fernandez, a member of Calderon's political faction, was eventually reined in, or at least quieted, by party elders.

In Veracruz, doubts and questions run deep.

"We are left with a lot of disappointment and suspicion," said Miguel Angel Matiano, a union leader for judicial employees in Veracruz who is lobbying for protection for his members. "What interests, what ties … do the politicians have? You can't take justice into your own hands, but if you don't trust the authorities, you will turn to the other group."

"You don't know who's who these days," added a local television broadcaster who did not want to be named for fear of his safety.

Whoever the Zeta killers are, Veracruz city seethes with terror and panic. The streets in this port town, normally bustling with night life, begin to empty around dusk. Marines based in Veracruz patrol the neighborhoods, conducting house-to-house searches, moving in convoys, dressed in battle camouflage and black balaclavas. Parents rush to pull their kids from school at the faintest rumored hint of an attack. About 30 families from the business elite have fled the city, one knowledgeable resident said.

"There has always been violence, but it was hidden better," said Father Luis Felipe Gallardo Martin del Campo, the bishop of Veracruz. "Now the lid has been blown off."

Even Calderon, in a startling admission, said last week that the state of Veracruz had been "left in the hands of the Zetas."

The deterioration of Veracruz illustrates the way drug gangs have extended their stranglehold from border states to Mexico's center. Calderon this month has also felt obliged to send troops into Guerrero state, on the nation's opposite coast, where traffickers have forced schools to close for weeks and the body count has skyrocketed, all but destroying tourism to that state's coastal jewel, Acapulco.

More than 40,000 people have been killed in the expanding drug war since December 2006, when it began, according to government intelligence figures.

The government of Veracruz has sought to minimize the horror the state is living, or cast it as part of a broader national phenomenon for which local officials are not responsible.

"Law must prevail, and it is the state that must apply it," state government spokeswoman Gina Dominguez said in an interview.

Yet state officials have only exacerbated the uncertainty and suspicion by hiding information on new fatalities and claiming with excessive haste that most of the first batch of 35 dead were criminals. In fact, neither Gov. Javier Duarte nor state Atty. Gen. Reynaldo Escobar, who made those claims, had that information. The city's top newspaper, Notiver, later reported that the majority did not have criminal records. Escobar has since been forced to resign.

Among the dead were girls ages 15 and 16. Another victim was a well-known local transvestite, and two others were 15-year-old buddies from a rough neighborhood called Playa Linda, or "pretty beach," though it's anything but.

Rocio Velazquez told reporters she had last seen her son, Alan, when he was picked up by police a short time before his body was dumped. She said that she saw police detain Alan and a friend on an errand to buy feed for Alan's chickens, and that she tried to approach but the cops threatened to shoot her if she got closer.

"Where is the government? What is happening here? What is it all about?" Velazquez said to reporters. "There is more chaos, killing everywhere.... Who is behind all the slaughter?"

Velazquez told her story to three Mexican reporters from Mexico City, including one from MVS Radio, who found her at the Veracruz morgue. Often it takes Mexico City's national reporters, or foreign reporters, to do the journalistic investigation that local reporters are afraid to do. Four Veracruz journalists have been killed since March, including a prominent columnist shot to death along with his wife and son.

The three Mexico City reporters returned to the morgue the next day to continue their search for information. Veracruz police beat them up, they said, and seized or erased their tapes and photographs.

Full coverage: The drug war in Mexico

wilkinson@latimes.com

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