MEXICO CITY — Ygnacio Lopez Mendoza was one of the few mayors from Mexico's troubled state of Michoacan who openly sounded the alarm about the narco thugs whose extortion demands were targeting even small local governments like his.
"The insecurity … is something that everybody in the world knows, but no one talks about," Lopez, who represented the rural municipality of Santa Ana Maya, told reporters in February. "Why? Because we have to deal with organized crime, we have to pay them."
The Mexican government heard his complaints, promising to send more resources to the area after Lopez staged a hunger strike in Mexico City, the capital, last month. But others were listening too.
On Friday, the director of the Assn. of Local Authorities of Mexico said in a radio interview that Lopez had been abducted, tortured and killed. Lopez's body was discovered Thursday in his truck in the neighboring state of Guanajuato.
That state's prosecutors would not confirm Friday that Lopez was slain, saying only that he died of "asphyxia secondary to neck trauma." If his death becomes classified as a homicide, it will join a long list of similar cases in Mexico: In total, 47 mayors have been killed in the last eight years of drug-war violence, according to Ricardo Baptista, the director of the Local Authorities group.
But Lopez's death also occurred at a time when the nation is wondering whether Michoacan, a key agricultural state just a few hours west of Mexico City, has been all but overrun by drug cartels. One group in particular, the Caballeros Templarios, or Knights Templar, has been fighting with a rival group over drug routes, shaking down businesses large and small, and violently clashing with peasant "self-defense" groups that have risen up in a number of rural pueblos.
There may be no security challenge more pressing for the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto than Michoacan, which has spiraled out of control as other parts of Mexico, including swaths of the U.S. border region, have seen some reductions in violence. In May, Peña Nieto sent a wave of troops to pacify a number of Michoacan hot spots. On Monday — about a week after attacks at nine electric plants in the state — he sent in troops and federal police to the busy Michoacan port of Lazaro Cardenas, where the Knights are said to extract much of their wealth by controlling the drug trade and running a vast extortion racket.
Local governments are regularly caught in the crossfire in Michoacan — and sometimes they are complicit. In 2009, the government of former President Felipe Calderon arrested 35 mayors, prosecutors and other officials who were accused of taking cartel bribes; but the case fell apart, and all 35 were eventually released from custody. More recently, some mayors allied with the cartels have fled their towns after the rise of the vigilante groups.
After a tour of Michoacan's violence-scarred Tierra Caliente region in June, the Times reported that the Knights were controlling the lumber and livestock markets and extracting payments from homeowners, lime pickers, tortilla sellers — and from local governments.
Lopez had objected to the 10% cut that Knights demanded his government pay. "I would say that all of the mayors of Michoacan have this problem," he said in October.
Baptista said Friday that such issues are common in a number of other Mexican states as well.
"It's a very difficult situation," he said.
Baptista said his contention that the mayor was abducted, tortured and killed was based on conversations he had with Lopez's family, who had been told about his death by Guanajuato prosecutors.