MEXICO CITY — A gang aligned with Mexico’s most wanted drug lord may be delivering a gruesome challenge to the ruling cartel and Mexican officials in the Gulf state of Veracruz, by dumping 35 bodies on a busy avenue in front of horrified motorists and near where the nation’s top prosecutors were about to start a convention.
Authorities said Wednesday they believe the bound, seminude, tortured bodies unloaded by gunmen during rush hour Tuesday were people connected with the Zetas cartel, whose presence has grown in the state since a crackdown began last year in their main base of Tamaulipas to the north.
While Mexican officials would not say who carried out the attack, a banner left at the scene threatened the Zetas and bore the initials “G.N.” A U.S. law enforcement official said that appeared to refer to a group tied to Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, widely considered the world’s wealthiest drug trafficker.
But the official, who could not be quoted by name for security reasons, also said it would be surprising to see heavy involvement in Veracruz by Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel, which is based in the Pacific coast state of the same name on the other side of Mexico.
Drug trafficking in Veracruz was long controlled by the Gulf Cartel. But the business has been taken over by the Zetas, who had acted as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel before breaking away in early 2010 and waging a bloody war with their former allies across northeastern Mexico.
“We don’t have anything that corroborates or disputes” that the body dumping was linked to Guzman, the U.S. official said, adding that other sources say the Gulf Cartel could have been responsible. “Sometimes these criminal groups blame the other guys.”
Security expert Raul Benitez agreed it could be possible, however, because Guzman is forming alliances to attack the Zetas in other parts of Mexico. He said Guzman is seeking both to control territory and to punish the Zetas for attacking civilians, something that is shunned by most drug traffickers and that has ramped up government heat on all cartels. Veracruz, with its major port, is a key route for cocaine passing through Mexico from Guatemala en route to Texas.
The Zetas have been blamed in two of Mexico’s biggest mass killings of civilians since the federal government stepped up a crackdown on organized crime in 2006: the massacre last year of 72 migrants in Tamaulipas and a casino fire last month in the northern industrial city of Monterrey that killed 52 people, mostly women playing bingo and slot machines.
“El Chapo wants to ruin the Zetas in all locations because of their errors in Tamaulipas and Monterrey,” said Benitez, of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “Those were mistakes for other cartels, too.”
Most of the dumping victims identified had previous criminal records and links to organized crime, Veracruz state Attorney General Reynaldo Escobar Perez told Radio Formula on Wednesday.
“The killing of 35 people is deplorable, but it’s even more deplorable the same victims chose to extort, kidnap and kill,” Veracruz Gov. Javier Duarte wrote via Twitter.
Authorities said they were examining surveillance video for clues to who left the 35 bodies beneath an overpass while other gunmen pointed weapons at frightened drivers.
Stunned motorists grabbed cellphones and sent Twitter messages warning others to avoid the area, which was alongside the biggest shopping mall in Boca del Rio, part of the metropolitan area of Veracruz city and less than a mile (1 kilometre) from where Mexico’s top state and federal prosecutors and judiciary officials began a meeting Wednesday.
The state attorney general said the bodies were left piled in two trucks and on the ground near the statue of the Voladores de Papantla, ritual dancers from Veracruz state. Photos from the scene show some victims marked with the letter “Z.”
Among the bodies was a local police officer who had disappeared two weeks ago, Escobar told W Radio in Mexico City.
Local media said that 12 of the victims were women and that some of the dead men had been among prisoners who escaped from three Veracruz prisons on Monday, but Escobar denied the escaped convicts were among the dead.
At least 32 inmates got away from the three Veracruz prisons. Police recaptured 14 of them.
Drug violence has claimed more than 35,000 lives across Mexico since 2006, according to government figures. Others put the number at more than 40,000.
The Gulf Cartel and the Zetas broke apart over the killing of a Zeta in the border city of Reynosa, across from McAllen, Texas, in January 2010. They have made a war zone of northeastern Mexico, drawing heavy presence of military and federal police in a special operation to stop the violence.
Since then, Zetas from the Mexico border area have been showing up in Veracruz, the U.S. official said.
Under Guzman, Sinaloa has grown bloodier and more powerful, controlling cocaine trafficking on the Mexican border with California, while expanding eastward to the corridor between Sonora and Arizona and waging a fierce battle for Chihuahua state bordering Texas.
Mexico’s most powerful drug cartel also appears to be expanding methamphetamine production on a huge scale, but has not been known to operate along the Gulf of Mexico coast.