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In Mexico City, a body hanging from a bridge portends a shift in violence

 In Mexico City, a body hanging from a bridge portends a shift in violence
Firefighters retrieve a body found hanging from a bridge in Mexico City's Iztapalapa district on Oct. 19. (Irving Cabrera / AFP/Getty Images)

The dead man's body was bound up like a mummy, his hands roped behind his back and his head covered with a black sack. Tied by the waist, he was discovered dangling shoeless from a bridge over a busy street around 5 a.m. Monday — a shocking sight for thousands of commuters making their way into Mexico City for the start of the workweek.

City firefighters cut him down before dawn. He was 25, as yet unidentified, killed by two bullets to the head.

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Such a sight might be expected in drug-violence-ravaged Mexican states such as Guerrero, Veracruz and Tamaulipas. But Mexico City has long been considered a haven from the kind of brutal terror tactics used by organized crime in other parts of the country since the beginning of the drug war nearly a decade ago.

The dangling body is just one indication that the capital may no longer be immune.

"This is an omen," said Isabel Miranda de Wallace, an activist who founded the nonprofit Alto Al Secuestro! (An End to Kidnapping!). "This is the first time that a body has been hung here and it shows that we could be on the brink of a wave of violence."

Mexicans in other parts of the country began to move to this megalopolis of 20 million people after then-President Felipe Calderon launched a crackdown on organized crime in 2006. The crackdown led to an increase in violence, extortion and kidnapping in cities such as Juarez, Tampico and Tijuana, where rival gangs battled for turf. Tourists stayed away from some vacation spots as they came under siege.

Criminal organizations have long had a quiet presence in Mexico City as well. Groups such as Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's Sinaloa cartel, the notorious Zetas and others have established operational bases in the capital, according to analysts and a recent report from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The city is a transport hub and money-laundering center for drug cartels. In 2007, authorities here seized more than $207 million in drug money during a raid, at the time thought to be the biggest seizure of its kind.

Organizations run labs here to process substances before they're sold or shipped north. A recent TV report by the British broadcaster Sky News depicted labs in Mexico City processing cocaine — coverage that caught the attention of the local press.

"Of course there's always been organized crime in Mexico City, but [the gangs] have behaved differently here," said Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and editor of El Daily Post.

The capital has seen some isolated incidents of bodies dumped and severed heads over the last few years, but nothing on the scale seen elsewhere in the country. It has largely managed to maintain immunity in part because of its size, Hope said. Territorial disputes that are usually at the root of conflict in other regions tend not to be a problem in Mexico City because there's enough ground to go around.

The federal police, army and marines are headquartered here, as well as the presidency, Senate and Chamber of Deputies — adding a layer of security and resources not enjoyed in the provinces.

"The police force is so large here that it cannot be bought off the way it can in smaller cities," Hope said.

But Monday's grim discovery is one of various signs that things in the capital may be shifting, and that the gloves could be coming off in the fight for control of Mexico City's lucrative drug market opportunities.

Violent homicides rose by 21% to 566 in the first eight months of the year compared with the same period in 2014, according to figures from the local attorney general's office. That's high for Mexico City, where the number of homicides had been dropping, although still nowhere near as high as in other parts of the country. The capital district's homicide rate ranks seventh among Mexico's 32 regions.

Last week, an organization representing businesses in the city's historic center appealed publicly to Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera to address an increase in homicides, theft and extortion — problems they attribute to criminal organizations.

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"There are at least seven or eight organized criminal groups operating here," Guillermo Gazal, president of the organization Procentrhico, told the SinEmbargo news website.

Local news reports of extortion targeting bars and restaurants in some neighborhoods have increased in recent months.

On Monday, the same day the hanging body was discovered, five armed men held up a restaurant in the Roma neighborhood and robbed 25 customers at their tables. The owner of a bar in the hip Condesa zone was shot dead in June as he was getting out of his car in front of his business.

In May, a group of armed men, reportedly from the Jalisco New Generation cartel, broke into a police station to free a member of the gang who had been detained for carrying a gun, prompting a police chase on the city's streets.

And on Wednesday morning, Mexico City's attorney general said the body of another homicide victim was dumped during the night in the neighborhood where the dangling cadaver was discovered. The 45-year-old was killed by a single shot to the head. Local media reported that a message was left with the body, addressed to the mayor. It purported to be from a criminal group claiming ownership of the drug market in a local prison.

The list goes on — crimes that might give tourists second thoughts about visiting the city, as well as keep Mexicans in a state of fear. Mexico City recorded the most tourists of any area of Mexico last year, and tourism in the city was up 10% in the first six months of this year.

There have also been a spate of reports in the news media and social networks of narco-mantas, signs believed to be written and hung by criminal groups, increasingly appearing around the city.

The source of such messages is impossible to verify, as opportunistic criminals often claim membership in gangs to generate fear.

Mancera has maintained that organized crime doesn't have a significant presence in the city, but that conviction could be slipping. At a news conference after Monday's discovery of the body, Mancera said: "The message for residents is that we're not going to allow impunity. And, well — is this the work of a criminal organization? I don't know, but it's a criminal act that the city must attend to."

He added that a sign left nearby indicated the killing may have been tied to a dispute between prisoners in a local jail, and that an investigation was underway. The city's attorney general, Rodolfo Rios Garza, however, said in a telephone interview that Monday's incident showed no signs at all of having been perpetrated by any of Mexico's established criminal groups.

"Organized crime does not have a presence in Mexico City," declared Rios Garza.

After the discovery of the second body on Wednesday and the note left with it, Rios acknowledged during a news conference that the violence did seem to be connected to control of drug markets in the city prison.

Ernesto Lopez Portillo, a security expert with the Institute for Security and Democracy, said claims that there is no organized crime in Mexico City are "unbelievable." Research by his group shows 90% of the crimes perpetrated by criminal gangs, such as extortion and kidnapping, are not reported because the victims fear retaliation, suggesting that drug-related violence here is probably much higher than recent events might indicate.

"Mexico's criminal organizations grow more powerful by the day," Portillo said. "And Mexico City is no exception."

Bonello is a special correspondent. Cecilia Sanchez in The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

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