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Why so many mayors are now targets in Mexican drug war

It used to be that working as top cop was one of the most dangerous jobs in Mexico when it comes to drug-trafficking targets. These days, however, it seems that mayors are facing the most danger.

The latest attack came Monday, when a mayor and his aide from the small town of Tancitaro in the state of Michoacan were found mutilated, apparently stoned to death. Their bodies were found in a pickup truck outside of the town of Uruapan.

The attack marks the fifth targeted attack of a mayor in Mexico in more than five weeks and the 11th assassination of the year.

Grisly violence is nothing new in Mexico, where more than 28,000 have been killed in drug-related violence in four years. But targeting the political class has become a disturbing new problem in the country.

Ties between traffickers and local officials
Raul Benitez, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, says that the spate of recent deaths may be no coincidence: It comes as the federal government is increasing intelligence capabilities and taking a harder look at collusion between traffickers and local police and authorities, as it looks to centralize the police force.

Therefore, many mayors who once may have turned a blind eye to trafficking exploits in their towns might now be refusing to cooperate.

“If the mayor is an obstacle, that is when the problem starts,” says Mr. Benitez.

Tancitaro Mayor Gustavo Sanchez became mayor after the previous one, along with city officials and police, resigned in the face of death threats. Sanchez’s death was the third attack in five days. In the northern state of Chihuahua, the mayor-elect of Gran Morelos was shot Friday. The mayor of Doctor Gonzalez in Nuevo Leon was killed a day earlier on his ranch near the industrial city of Monterrey.

In mid-August, the mayor of Santiago, outside Monterrey, was found dead, after being kidnapped by suspected drug traffickers. His death was followed by the assassination of a mayor in Tamaulipas and another shot dead while working in his office in a small town of San Luis Potosi.

Violent hotspots
Just as violence in Mexico is largely limited to hot spots, such as Ciudad Juarez across the border from El Paso, Texas – security spokesman Alejandro Poire said in August that 80 percent of drug-related homicides have occurred in just 162 municipalities – so, too, is the killing of mayors. The recent five attacks have outraged the nation, but many observers point out that Mexico has 2,456 municipalities.

The targeting of mayors has not played out in big cities, but in small-town Mexico, where security is scant. Drug traffickers often take over these towns, enticing poorly paid local police onto their payrolls so that they can act with impunity to stash drugs, weapons, or cash.

In the past, some mayors may have tolerated their presence, but as the federal government places greater scrutiny on corruption, particularly as it looks to form a centralized police system, Benitez says that mayors are now standing in the way.

“If the mayor cannot be corrupted … the drug traffickers cannot operate,” he says.

Some mayors, such as that of Ciudad Juarez, have sought haven in the US, setting up their families on American soil and commuting to Mexico for work.

The problem could worsen before improving, not only as scrutiny increases but also because a copy-cat effect is playing out as drug traffickers see an effective mode of intimidation. “They are looking at what their brothers are doing and are using the same strategy,” says Benitez.

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