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Drug gangs taking control in Mexico

As helicopters circled overhead, trucks carrying Mexican army troops lurched through the colonial streets of this provincial capital to a central plaza, where a grenade had been discovered near the cathedral.

Law-enforcement agents cordoned off the plaza and removed the grenade. But the latest attempt at intimidation in Michoacan, the state where Mexican President Felipe Calderon first dispatched the military to confront the Mexican drug cartels, appears to have succeeded.

Fear of the drug gangs pervades this city about 200 miles west of Mexico City.

“Don't go to Aguililla or to Tepalcatepec or to Coalcoman!” is the warning Victor Serrato, president of the State Commission on Human Rights in Morelia gives visitors. There is a risk of abduction, mistreatment or worse, he said.

Paracuaro, which human rights experts considered a “safe” town, turned out not to be.

Gangland-style murders and targeted assassinations of law-enforcement officers have claimed headlines in what Mexicans now refer to as war.

The chilling reality of Mexico is the mounting evidence that organized crime has become the de facto power in parts of the country, and local authorities can no longer protect citizens and impart justice.

“Michoacan is one of the states where you feel most the breakdown of the social fabric because of this criminal activity,” Serrato said.

“These cartels, which previously were dedicated to the narcotics business, have now turned to control a whole other series of activities,” he said. “They are demanding payoffs not only from owners of illicit businesses, but what is more serious, they are demanding them from people who sell clothing in markets or the owners of small restaurants.”

Violence between competing drug gangs reached a peak in 2006, when drug commandos known as the Zetas tossed five severed human heads on a nightclub floor in Uruapan, some 290 miles west of Mexico City. In the last week in August, the state was the site of four gangland killings and the abduction of Uruapan's town council secretary, Maribel Martinez, who was snatched after the attended an evening mass. Her bodyguards were wounded.

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