Drug Violence Swamps A Once Peaceful Mexican City The drug violence in Mexico has claimed another victim, the port city of Veracruz. The recent bloodshed is crippling tourism and sowing fear in what, until last year, had been a relatively peaceful part of Mexico. But in a twist, a group calling itself the Zeta Killers is vowing to fight the drug cartel.
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Drug Violence Swamps A Once Peaceful Mexican City

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Drug Violence Swamps A Once Peaceful Mexican City

MICHELE NORRIS, HOST:

In Mexico, the port of Veracruz has become the latest flashpoint for drug-related violence. Over the last month, more than a hundred bodies have been strewn around the city. Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared that Veracruz has been left in the hands of the Zetas, one of the most brutal criminal organizations in the country. Well, a new group claiming to be the Zeta Killers has sprung up in the Gulf Coast state.

And as NPR's Jason Beaubien reports, it's vowing to launch a paramilitary offensive organized crime state.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Veracruz is one of Mexico's largest and oldest ports. It survives on shipping and tourism. But the recent bloodshed is crippling tourism and sowing fear in what, up until last year, had been a relatively peaceful part of Mexico.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: In the Miguel Hidalgo market in Veracruz, a woman who runs a small seafood stand says she's fed up. She says Veracruz lives off tourism. But right now, nobody is coming. She's terrified about what's going on and doesn't want her name broadcast.

At her counter, she serves up thick glass cups of shrimp cocktail, chopped octopus drizzled with lime, and fresh fish cerviche. Lately, her sales are off sharply, and she says the government isn't doing anything to address the security problem.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: We are waiting to see who's the superhero who's going to save us, she says. The army came and she wondered is this the superhero. Then the Marines were sent into the streets. She says one thing that's clear is the superhero is definitely not going to be the police.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No.

BEAUBIEN: In Veracruz, as in other parts of Mexico convulsed by drug violence, the forces of destruction right now appear far more powerful than the forces of peace. On the eve of a convention for Mexican prosecutors last month in the Boca del Rio section of Veracruz, heavily armed gunmen blocked off traffic at rush hour, then dumped 35 bodies in the street just blocks from the beachfront hotel where the prosecutors were staying.

In a surprise twist, the bodies were not dumped by the notoriously brutal Zetas. Instead, the dead were allegedly members of the Zetas themselves. A group calling itself Los Mata Zetas, or the Zeta Killers, claimed responsibility for the act.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: In a video posted on YouTube, five men in black ski masks sit in what appears to be a hotel conference room declaring themselves the armed wing of the Veracruz population. The Zeta Killers say they dumped the corpses in Boca del Rio to show the Zetas that they're not welcome in Veracruz. Matching bottles of mineral water are lined up in front of the hooded men as they speak.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: The leader reads a statement calling on people to stop paying extortion. He also threatens government officials who are working with the drug cartels.

Officials in President Calderon's administration quickly denied that paramilitary groups have now jumped in to the already bloody drug war. They dismissed the Zeta Killers as a stunt by the powerful Sinaloan cartel and just a new way for the Sinaloans to attack their rivals.

More than 40,000 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico since President Calderon declared war on the cartels in December of 2006. The Catholic bishop of Veracruz, Luis Felipe Gallardo Martin del Campo, says the current violence by and against organized crime is unprecedented in Veracruz.

LUIS FELIPE GALLARDO MARTIN DEL CAMPO: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: The bishop says Veracruz has experienced violence during wars and invasions by foreign armies, but the current violence by organized crime is very different. He says the killings and the threats and the bodies being dumped in the streets are spreading fear throughout the entire population.

That fear is shared by reporters. This summer, the editor of a respected daily newspaper in Veracruz was gunned down, along with his wife and son. A few weeks later, the paper's crime reporter was abducted. Her body was left in the street behind a rival publication. The journalists' deaths, like most of the deaths in this drug war, remain unsolved.

SERGIO RODOLFO VACA BETANCOURT: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Sergio Rodolfo Vaca Betancourt is a local lawyer and a former congressman for President Calderon's PAN party. Vaca says the current crime wave in Veracruz is the result of the complete corruption of the state's security and justice systems. He says corruption reaches to the highest levels of the police and prosecutors and has allowed criminal groups, such as the Zetas, to flourish.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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