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Mexican government sends 6,500 federal forces to tackle drug violence, beheadings

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VENTA DE BRAVO, Mexico (AP) Mexico's new president launched his first major offensive against drug gangs, sending more than 6,500 federal forces to his violence-plagued home state to crack down on turf wars that have left hundreds dead in a wave of execution-style killings and beheadings.

Security officials said police and soldiers will arrest traffickers, mount checkpoints and burn marijuana and opium poppies grown in Michoacan's rugged mountains. Navy ships will seal off the state's short Pacific coast, which smugglers travel on their way to the United States.

President Felipe Calderon took office on Dec. 1 pledging a "battle'' against crime, promising more funds for the army and law enforcement and appointing hard-line Interior Minister Francisco Ramirez Acuna to oversee the fight against organized crime.

Calderon vowed to smash the drug gangs, which have been blamed for more than 2,000 drug-related killings this year, including several police chiefs, journalists, town mayors and at least one judge.

"The battle against organized crime has just begun,'' Ramirez Acuna said Monday. "We are looking to take back the spaces that organized crime has seized.''

The force of 4,260 soldiers, 1,054 sailors, 1,420 federal police agents and 50 specialized investigative federal agents will operate 19 planes, 38 helicopters, and four ships in Michoacan.

Similar past efforts have shown few permanent results.

Calderon's predecessor Vicente Fox promised the "mother of all battles'' against organized crime, sending thousands of soldiers and police to places like the border city of Nuevo Laredo and the tourist resort of Acapulco. Those efforts failed to quell the violence for long.

Hilly, largely rural Michoacan, which has about 4 million people. is a major drug transshipment point; police here have reported more than 500 killings this year, about half of which investigators say are linked to a turf war between two rival drug gangs.

To silence its rivals and the public, the Michoacan gangs have carried out a wave of decapitations, placing the severed heads on public display with threatening notes including one that read, "See. Hear. Shut Up. If you want to stay alive.''

In the most gruesome case, gunmen burst into a nightclub and rolled five heads onto the dance floor. In another, a pair of heads were planted in front of a car dealership in Zitacuaro, a town best known until now as a nesting ground for monarch butterflies.

Federal investigators say the violence in Michoacan stems from a turf war between a local gang called Los Valencia, apparently allied with Guzman's Sinaloa cartel, and a shadowy group known as 'The Family,'' apparently allied with the Gulf cartel. The group operates a bloody gang of enforcers, known as the Zetas, led by ex-Mexican army operatives turned hit men.

Calderon, a career politician from the conservative National Action Party, has come under criticism for his proposed budget cuts in other areas, and the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, still refuses to recognize Calderon's narrow July 2 electoral victory over the PRD candidate.

But Michoacan Gov. Lazaro Cardenas Batel, a PRD member, welcomed Monday's announcement and said he hoped the federal forces would stay.

"We hope it won't be a fleeting presence, that it will be a presence that will seriously reduce the level of violence in Michoacan,'' Cardenas Batel told local media.

The state's killings rose in 2004 following the arrest of Valencia leader Armando Valencia and his lieutenant Carlos Alberto Rosales Mendoza. Investigators say their arrests encouraged Gulf cartel leaders to try to battle their way into their territory.

While Mexico has made some headway in arresting the heads of the Tijuana and Gulf cartels, major traffickers remain at large and the drug gangs have regrouped and formed nationwide alliances that fight each other for control of local markets and drug shipment routes.

Many security experts say it will take more than just brute force to defeat the cartels, who are heavily armed, using rocket-propelled grenades and bazookas, and well-financed, making billions of dollars smuggling marijuana, heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine into the United States.
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