According to figures released by the Mexican government March 28, drug-related violence claimed 12,903 lives in the country in 2011—down from the record-breaking 15,273 claimed for 2010. In releasing the figures, the administration of President Felipe Calderón attempted to down-play them, asserting that drug-related violence throughout the hemisphere last year claimed 150,000 lives.
This caused some confusion in the Mexican press, as two days earlier, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had used the 150,000 figure to refer to the total number killed in drug-related violence in Mexico since 2006, when Calderón took office and began using the armed forces aggressively against the cartels. Panetta's comment itself caused controversy, since the more common estimate for drug-related deaths in Mexico since 2006 is 50,000. Panetta presumably misspoke—or intentionally exaggerated the scope of the crisis.
Panetta's flub came at an Ottawa meeting of the defense secretaries of the US, Canada and Mexico, a prelude to the upcoming White House NAFTA summit, the first since 2009, which will bring together Barack Obama, Calderón and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper this week. Security cooperation and the violence in Mexico will top the agenda. The summit comes as presidential election campaigns are heating up in both the US and Mexico; for Calderón, who is constitutionally barred from seeking re-election, it will be his last summit. (AFP, April 1; La Jornada, Univision, Americas MexicoBlog, March 28)
Grisly violence continues to make headlines in Mexico on a near-daily basis. In one particularly sensationalized case, Sonora state police on March 30 announced the arrest of seven members of the Santa Muerte cult—described in press accounts as a "Satanic sect"—who are accused of killing a woman and two children as sacrificial offerings in the city of Nacozari. (Informador, March 30)
In Guerrero state, 10 decapitated heads—of seven men and three women—were found near the village of Teloloapan on March 18. State police sent to search for the bodies and perpetrators were ambushed on the road, and six were killed. A second police unit sent in was also ambushed, and another six agents killed. Teloloapan lies in the heart of Guerrero's opium-producing zone, where a program of joint patrols and checkpoints coordinating state and federal police with army troops is ironically dubbed "Secure Guerrero." (El País, Spain, March 19)
On March 19, a total of 12 state and municipal police were killed when armed men fired on their vehicles in Vista Hermosa, Michoacán. The patrol had been mobilized in response to reports of masked men with rifles terrorizing residents in the pueblo of La Angostura.
On March 9, two bodies bearing signs of torture were left hanging from a bridge over a highway in Vista Hermosa. Another victim whose throat had been slit was found dumped under the same bridge, while a fourth body was discovered floating in a river near the highway.
One day earlier on that same highway, which links Michoacán and neighboring Jalisco state, armed men fired at the car carrying Andrés Cárdenas Guerrero, mayor of the Pacific coast town of Coahuayana with Calderón's ruling National Action Party (PAN). The car was found abandoned on the highway with at least two bullet holes, and the whereabouts of Cárdenas are unknown.
Days before that, three SUVs were set ablaze in Marcos Castellanos, a town adjacent to Vista Hermosa, presumably in retaliation for the arrests of several reputed members of the New Generation narco gang. (EFE, Vanguardia, March 19; LAHT, March 10)
Calderón has cited his home state of Michoacán as an example of "narco-influence" on the electoral process, noting that as many as 50 candidates have dropped out of local races because of threats, and a local cell of Los Zetas distributed propaganda backing a candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Although the candidates that were threatened came from all three of Mexico's major parties, the Zetas' endorsement of a PRI candidate fueled speculation that Calderón's PAN has a "special relationship" with Los Zetas' notorious rival, the SInaloa Cartel. (UDW, March 23)
In a particularly poignant case in Chiapas state, the discovery of 167 human skeletons in a cave near Frontera Comalapa was attributed by state police to their agents' "intelligence work," in the assumption that it was a mass grave of narco-victims. It later proved the skeletons were pre-Columbian remains, and their removal from the cave was protested by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). The agency's Chiapas director, Emiliano Gallaga, said that in the process of removing the skeletons authorities had altered the context of the archaeological site, resulting in the loss of "invaluable" information. (LAHT, March 14)