Why Are Beheadings Popular With Mexico’s Drug Gangs?

Cuernavaca, Mexico – The preferred form of cruelty by drug cartel henchmen is to capture enemies and behead them, a once-shocking act that has now become numbingly routine.

Since March 22, authorities have come across four separate grisly scenes of beheaded bodies, in one case with several heads placed neatly in a row.

Dozens of people have been decapitated in recent months, most of them apparently members of rival drug gangs locked in turf battles over narcotics routes, betrayals of loyalty and territorial influence.

One morning earlier this week, four bodies were thrown on a sidewalk along a service road of radiator shops and garages abutting the main highway leading from Mexico’s capital through this city to the south and on to Acapulco, the Pacific beach resort. One of the bodies was missing its head.

As is usual in drug-related beheadings, a sign was left next to the bodies. It was addressed to Edgar Valdez Villarreal, a Mexican-American drug trafficker known by the nickname La Barbie because his light complexion makes him look like Ken, the companion of the Barbie doll. “Here are your homosexuals,” the note began. “This will happen to all the traitors and those who support you.”

Within hours, government workers had carted away the bodies and scrubbed the scene nearly clean of bloodstains. Locals declined to talk.

Decapitations by drug cartels in Mexico first began in 2006, and that year armed thugs swaggered onto the white tile dance floor of the Sol y Sombra discotheque in Uruapan, a town in Michoacan state, and dumped five heads from plastic garbage bags.

The blood-curdling act shocked Mexico, and evoked images of Islamic terrorism half a world away.

“These guys are copying the methods of al Qaida (terrorists),” said Jorge Chabat, a criminal justice expert at the Center for Research and Teaching of Economics in Mexico City. He said the Mexican drug lords saw Internet video of beheadings of hostages captured by Muslim extremists in Iraq and Pakistan, and adopted the tactic themselves, down to the posting of video on the internet.

Decapitations emerged alongside another gruesome tactic — dumping the bodies of rivals in vats of acid. Cartel goons have moved away from that method, however.

“Dissolving the bodies in acid didn’t bring them the same spectacular results,” said Arturo Arango Duran, a security consultant in Monterrey, the industrial and business hub in the nation’s north, referring to media coverage. “This is all part of a plan to use publicity to control territory through terror.”

Experts suggest that the drug gangs have several motives. First, they seek to use beheadings to cow the citizenry from squealing on them and to pressure local authorities to collaborate. Second, the gangs try to out-macho each other with greater acts of macabre violence, frightening rivals in a murderous spiral.

The only hitch is that all the drug gangs have taken up beheadings.

“Even though everybody does it, it still works. That’s the problem,” Chabat said. “If you’re a trafficker and you know that this is part of the game, the idea of having your head decapitated is not attractive.”

National print media in Mexico now downplay the beheadings, giving them scant paragraphs and limiting the publicity the cartels once received.

The pace of drug-related violence is quickening. March was the bloodiest month yet with 958 deaths, El Universal newspaper reported Thursday. Since President Felipe Calderon took office in late 2006, confronting drug cartels, 18,757 people have died, it said.

“They are plumbing the depths of brutality now — the beheading of people, dissolving people in acid, doing the massacres in addiction centers, you know, throwing peoples’ bodies in ditches,” said Bruce Bagley, an expert on narcotics trafficking at the University of Miami.

Beheadings in recent days occurred across the country:

  • In Acapulco on the Pacific Coast, two nephews of the city’s deputy transit director were found dismembered and beheaded on March 22. A sign near the bodies said it was vengeance against those who supported drug lord Hector Beltran Leyva, a bitter rival of La Barbie.
  • On a rural highway north of Monterrey, the beheaded bodies of a rural police chief and his brother were found in a Chevrolet pickup truck March 26. Assailants used the blood from the victims to scrawl “CDG,” the Spanish initials for the Gulf Cartel, on the windshield and the driver’s door. …The Gulf Cartel, based in Tamaulipas state, is locked in a bloody feud with a group that once provided muscle to its leaders. The armed wing, known as Los Zetas, struck out on its own in 2008, and the killings between the two have continued nonstop.
  • In Apatzingan, a city of 100,000 people in Michoacan state, four heads were left in a row next to a statue to Lazaro Cardenas, a former president, on March 31. A sign said it was vengeance by enforcers of the brutal criminal drug gang known as La Familia against Los Zetas, and suggested that a Zetas chief known as “Rufo,” should search for an Internet video to see how the beheadings were carried out. (A video was posted on the Web, but YouTube removed it, citing a “terms of use violation.”)

In an indication of the frequency of decapitations, local media in Michoacan said Apatzingan alone has been the scene of 18 beheadings since the beginning of the year.