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Wave of Killings Hits Acapulco, as Gang War Continues without Winner

A wave of murders sweeping the south Mexican state of Guerrero is a grim reminder of the damage wreaked by the long-running conflict between various different groups, most traditionally the Zetas and Sinaloa Cartel, for this key region.

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As Blog del Narco reported, 10 people were killed on Monday in Acapulco, the famous resort location that is Guerrero’s largest city. This follows the murder of eight other people there on May 31. In addition, a local police commander was attacked by an armed group on Monday, left seriously injured after gunmen armed with AR-15s and AK-47s pumped more than 20 bullets into his car.

While Acapulco has become Guerrero’s most notorious hotspot for violence, the recent killings have not been limited to the beach town made famous by past generations of Hollywood stars. In Zihuatanejo, another popular resort city in the state, two dead bodies were left inside a taxi parked on a street on Monday. On Tuesday in Tecpan, a smaller coastal community between Zihuatanejo and Acapulco, three people more were killed, two of them decapitated; around their bodies, authorities found roughly 125 bullet casings, some belonging to assault rifles.

The rash of violence in this southern state comes days after the federal government initiated a new phase of its Operativo Guerrero Seguro, or Operation Safe Guerrero. The program, which was initially launched in October 2011, aims to improve security by repairing the social fabric in the region. It is broadly similar to the Todos Somos Juarez program that some consider a key factor in that border city’s declining murder rate. In April, Interior Secretary Alejandro Poire pointed to Operation Safe Guerrero as having driven a 30 percent decline in murders linked to organized crime during the program's first 200 days in operation.

However, even beyond the recent outbreak of violence, the federal government’s measures of all murders, as compiled by the National Public Security System, offers reason for caution in trumpeting Guerrero's security gains. Through the first four months of 2012, the state witnessed 676 murders, putting it on a pace for 2,028 in the year. This would be a decline from the 2,158 killings last year, but it represents an increase from the final four months of 2011, during which 628 people were murdered in Guerrero.

In any event, there’s little question that 2011 and 2012 saw grave deteriorations in security in the state. Guerrero has long been among Mexico’s most violent states, but from 1997 to 2010, it averaged a mere 1,081 murders per year, and from 2003 through 2008, as it appeared to be on a path toward greater security, the average was less than 800 per year. More than 2,000 murders in a single year represents an alarming deviation from the previous trends, regardless of how you spin the statistics.

This increase in violence is closely tied to organized crime. Drug trafficking groups covet Guerrero because of its long coastline, its location on Mexico’s southern Pacific coast, and its constant stream of boat traffic into different port cities, which make it an ideal area for smuggling cocaine from South and Central America. The growth of several different criminal gangs has also encouraged the increase of crimes like extortion in the state; as InSight Crime reported, extortions of local teachers caused many Acapulco schools to temporarily shut down last year. According to the federal government, Guerrero is among the states with the highest number of extortions.

In this perpetually turbulent state, Acapulco stands out as a particularly bloody outpost. While the size and prosperity of the city makes it an attractive site for extortion and kidnapping, the disproportionate violence stems largely from the inability of any one gang to control the plaza, a problem dating back years. Acapulco was one of the most notorious sites of violence between the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel as early as 2005. Today, however, the violence is not merely a product of these two heavyweight organizations, but also stems from the activities of a proliferation of allies, proxies, and local upstarts.

The Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO), a key Sinaloa Cartel ally until 2008, has long had a significant presence in Acapulco; Hector Beltran Leyva, its current leader, was associated with the group’s operations in the city. The Familia Michoacana, based in neighboring Michoacan, also operated there. The decline of the BLO and the organization led by Edgar Valdez Villarreal, however, gave rise to a number of local gangs in 2010 and 2011, such as the Pacific South Cartel and the Independent Cartel of Acapulco. The Barredora, another local group linked to a number of kidnappings, began winning headlines last year.

Earlier this year, the Jalisco Cartel - New Generation (CJNG), promised to move into Guerrero and Michoacan to cleanse the states of the Caballeros Templarios, a Familia Michoacana offshoot that has largely replaced its forebears. This also points to a surge of killings in Guerrero and Acapulco, and is likely a driver of the recent violence. A video posted to the Internet last week, for instance, shows alleged three members of the Caballeros Templarios being interrogated and executed by a member of the CJNG. While the location of the killings is unknown, it is likely that they were carried out in Guerrero.

In any event, with a constellation of different gangs battling each other for control of a growing number of rackets, Guerrero, like Jalisco, reflects many of the dynamics driving the broader increase in violence in Mexico.

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