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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LYNN NEARY, host:

And I'm Lynn Neary.

Mexican and U.S. officials are meeting today in Laredo, Texas to discuss concerns about growing drug violence in Mexico. U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza has advised U.S. citizens to use extreme caution when traveling in Mexico because of increasing violence. Cartels across the country are fighting for the lucrative drug trafficking routes into the United States. More than 1,500 people have died in narco-related killings this year alone. And we're about to take you to the state with the most killings. It's called Michoacan. And we should warn you, the violence depicted in this report is brutal.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro filed the report.

(Soundbite of music)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's almost midnight at the Sol y Sombra, or Sun and Shadow dance hall, in the town of Uruapan. The music from a live band echoes through the cavernous space. Sitting around the room in white plastic chairs are very young women with soft bodies and hard mouths. They dance with the men who come here for a dollar a song. After hours they also do considerably more for little more money. The men look like they've come out of bad-ass central casting: bandanas wrapped around their heads, bloodshot eyes, and hands that look like they could hold weapons as easily as they do beers.

Carlos Alvarez is the manager of Sol y Sombra, now infamous for what happened one late night this month.

Mr. CARLOS ALVAREZ (Manager, Sol y Sombra): (Through translator) Twenty armed men, their faces completely covered up, showed up here around 1:00 a.m. They told everyone to lie on the ground and they shot into the air.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They were also carrying a sack. Inside it: five severed heads, which they dumped onto the dance floor. Written on cardboard was this message...

Unidentified Man: The family doesn't kill for money. It doesn't kill women. It doesn't kill innocent people. Only those who deserve to die. Know that this is divine justice.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alvarez sports a greased mullet and a mustache. He's clearly uneasy. And he says he doesn't really want to talk about the incident. In fact, when pressed he nervously defends the assailants.

Mr. ALVAREZ: (Through translator) These men didn't come here to hurt anyone. They work against bad people. Those men whose heads they cut were like bugs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fear here, in the state of Michoacan, spreads like a miasma. Across the road is a small shop with a TV blaring. A visiting reporter gets hurriedly ushered into a back room.

Why are we standing here in the back of your shop?

Owner Victor Alejandro tells me he's afraid to be seen talking to a stranger.

Mr. VICTOR ALEJANDRO (Michoacan Resident): (Through translator) There are informants everywhere. I'm just talking about how we regular people feel. I'm not telling you names because I insist I don't know anything. But they could think that I was giving you sensitive information, and that could bring me lots of problems.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alejandro says things are bad here.

Mr. ALEJANDRO: (Through translator) We live in fear because of the situation of violence. There are a lot of capos, people who deal in illicit things, who are in Uruapan right now. They all have their groups and they bring problems, and they resolve their issues in the street violently. Let's say I honk my horn at the wrong person, something bad could happen. There have been cases that they confront people with guns.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Michoacan is best known outside of Mexico as the place where the monarch butterflies winter. It's an area of stunning natural beauty, dotted by small towns with red tile roofs and colonial-era squares. But it now has a more dubious distinction. It is the state with the highest number of drug-related murders in all of Mexico. So far this year, nearly 400 people have been killed here. A few days after the bar incident, investigators found a narco fosa, or narco mass grave, just outside Uruapan - the bodies of six men with their throats cut stuffed into a hole.

(Soundbite of papers rifling)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ramon Avila is the coroner in the town of Apatzingan, a few hours drive from Uruapan. He flips through a ledger detailing all the deaths he's dealt with. There's been a dramatic upsurge.

Mr. RAMON AVILA (Coroner): (Through translator) In August, 2004, there were 13 people violently killed here. This August there were 23, almost double.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's not just the numbers. It's the savagery with which they've been dispatched. Avila recounts how they're getting more and more decapitations. Most of them have their heads cut off while they're still alive, with chain saws or box cutters. And some have been further mutilated.

Mr. AVILA: (Through translator) There are groups fighting for power here. And one wants to keep everything. That's why we're seeing all the violence. This is looking more and more like Colombia in the 1990s.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Apatzingan is reputedly the place where crystal meth was invented, but all over the state they grow marijuana and poppies for heroin. And while the drug violence has everyone worried, the drug kingpins here are actually folk heroes too.

(Soundbite of song)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Although they are illegal, go to any market in Michoacan and you can find CDs with homegrown narco corridos, ballads that glorify drug dealers and the drug trade. And no wonder. Mexican intelligence estimates that at least 65,000 people live off the drug trade in some way here, and it's lucrative for the communities. Michoacan is mainly an agricultural state. It's the biggest producer of avocados for export in Mexico. But a farmer can get paid in a week working for the drug lords what he would make in a month in California. People are extremely poor here and Michoacan has one of the highest levels of migration to the United States.

Mr. FRANCISCO CASTILLANOS(ph) (Reporter, Processo Magazine): (Spanish spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Francisco Castillanos works for the Mexican magazine Processo and he's been covering the narcos for years.

Mr. CASTILLANOS: (Through translator) In Michoacan the Gulf cartel, the Juarez cartel, the Tijuana cartel, the Valencias, plus a number of small groups that are cells of these trafficking groups, all operate.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says there is a war going on and not just in Michoacan but across the country. For example, on September 16th, 11 people were assassinated in Mexico, seven in less than 12 hours in Tijuana alone. The gangs have squads of hit men working for them - the Zetas, Mexican Special Forces who turned into elite killers for hire and foreign nationals. Three Guatemalans were just caught in Michoacan and admitted to being assassins in the pay of a cartel.

Castillanos says all the groups operate with near impunity. He estimates that at least 75 percent of law enforcement is corrupt.

Mr. CASTILLANOS: (Through translator) The corruption has penetrated like a cancer, from the municipal police to the state police to the federal police. The drug trade is a thousand-headed monster and almost no one is saved.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In Apatzingan in August, two-dozen policemen were removed from office after being charged with colluding with the Gulf cartel. Those who are honest are too scared to work often. On Monday, in another small town in Michoacan, 18 local police resigned because they said they'd been threatened by narco groups.

(Soundbite of Spanish conversation)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's dark and rainy on a lonely road in the highlands of the state. Policemen carrying M16s rifles and wearing ski masks check cars for guns and drugs in a nighttime operation. Gabriel is their leader. He won't give his last name for security reasons. Like all the officials I speak with, he stresses that the state is mostly safe, especially for tourists. No one here wants Michoacan to end like the border town of Nuevo Laredo, which saw tourists and businesses take flight after international attention on the drug violence there.

GABRIEL (Michoacan Police): (Through Translator) It's important to say that not all of Michoacan is in conflict. There are red zones and we deal with them in operations like the one we're undertaking now. But there are four million people here and a small fraction of them are involved in the drug trade.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That maybe true, but as we left the office of a senior Mexican official in Michoacan, we were followed. A few seconds after we dropped off our local stringer on a street corner, he was grabbed and hustled into a car by three men working for one of the cartels. He was threatened and now his life, like the lives of so many others here, is at risk.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

NEARY: An audio slideshow takes you to the dark side of Michoacan, at npr.org.

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