All The Rage

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Want to grab a few headlines? Need some free publicity? Want the world press to carry your message far and wide for free? There's one easy way to do it all.

Behead a few people.

Think it's just in the Muslim world? Nope. Others have watched and learned. Like Mexican drug gangs.

In Michoacan, the home state of President-elect Felipe Calderon, 17 heads have turned up this year, many with bloodstained notes like the one found in the highlands town of Tepalcatepec in August: "See. Hear. Shut Up. If you want to stay alive."

Many in Michoacan's mountains and colonial cities are doing just that: They are tightlipped, their newspapers are censoring themselves and in one town, 18 out of 32 police officers quit saying they had received death threats from drug smugglers.

In the most gruesome case, gunmen burst into a nightclub and rolled five heads onto the dance floor. In another, a pair of heads were planted in front of a car dealership in Zitacuaro, a town best known until now as a nesting ground for monarch butterflies.

By a highway outside Tepalcatepec, suspected drug smuggler Hector Eduardo Bautista's tortured body was dumped on July 10. Near a black metal cross put up by his family at the spot, killers apparently avenging his death have been leaving severed heads — five so far — each with a threatening message.

Beheadings and accompanying notes in sometimes cryptic and misspelled Spanish are becoming a ghoulish vogue among the gangs that grow marijuana, cook methamphetamine and run cocaine in Michoacan. There have been 420 homicides in the state this year, including 19 police chiefs and commanders, and Juan Antonio Magana, the state's attorney general, says well over half the killings were drug-related — the work of smuggling gangs reorganizing after authorities captured some of their top leaders.

"These are groups that are very big, very strong and are out to dominate territory," Magana said in an interview.

Drug smuggling in Michoacan has traditionally been controlled by a syndicate known as Los Valencia. Police arrested its leader, Armando Valencia, in August 2003 and one of his lieutenants, Carlos Alberto Rosales Mendoza, a year later.

Now, anti-narcotics investigators say, the Gulf cartel based in northern Mexico is battling its way into Los Valencia territory, relying on "Los Zetas," ex-Mexican army operatives-turned hit men. Los Valencia loyalists have fought back fiercely.

Many notes attached to slaying victims are signed "The Family," a possible reference to Los Valencia. Some mention "La Chata," a known alias for a top reputed Gulf cartel hit man.

"They don't need to leave written messages. The mere fact that they are using such high levels of violence is sending messages of intimidation, causing fear," Magana said. "But doing it shows other gangs they can act in even more gruesome and violent ways than their rivals."

So. Anyone want to explain why they think fencing the Mexican border is a bad idea? With a straight face? Or at least one that is still attached to your body. Just to give you something to think about: type "Michoacan", the name of the Mexican state in the story above into whatever word processing program you use, then spell check it.

My spell check suggests "Michigan". How about yours?

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