Image: Supporters of Mayor Antonio Ixtlahuac
Alexandre Meneghini  /  AP
Supporters of Mayor Antonio Ixtlahuac, also known as Tono protest at the Zitacuaro's main square to demand his release on Wednesday. He was arrested this week by federal agents over allegations of ties to a drug cartel.
updated 5/28/2009 7:52:47 PM ET 2009-05-28T23:52:47

Severed heads tossed in front of a car dealership. Bodies hurled off a bridge. Extortion threats against shop owners. It was no secret that this town popular with tourists for its monarch butterfly nesting grounds was in the grip of Mexico's drug trade.

But even the most jaded were stunned when Zitacuaro's young, charismatic mayor was arrested this week in Mexico's biggest sweep ever against politicians with alleged cartel ties.

The swift and secretive operation by federal forces netted 10 mayors and 18 other top officials in Michoacan state, escalating President Felipe Calderon's battle against cartels ahead of the July 5 national elections.

The arrests sent a powerful message to Mexico's political class that no one — not even members of Calderon's own party — is safe from prosecution.

It also drove home the extent to which drug traffickers control life in Mexico — even infiltrating tourist destinations like Zitacuaro, where American and European naturalists flock to view trees fluttering with delicate orange-and-black monarch butterflies. Tourism is Mexico's third-largest source of legal foreign income, after oil and remittances.

The mayors are of different political stripes, including Calderon's conservative National Action Party, and the operation took place in the president's home state, where he first launched his national anti-drug campaign after taking office in December 2006, sending thousands of troops to the drug hot spot.

"Of course, he picked the state where he is from, to show he is not protecting anybody," said Thomas Schweich, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement.

Arrest sweep was secretive
The arrest sweep was so secretive that even the governor had no advance knowledge. In Zitacuaro, many residents said there had never been even a whisper that Mayor Antonio Ixtlahuac Orihuela was suspected of ties to drug trafficking.

His supporters angrily defended him against what they consider a politically motivated move ahead of the election, while others believe his arrest is a sign of how deep drug cartels have penetrated life in their once peaceful town.

Like many Mexican mayors, Ixtlahuac (iks-TLAH-wahk) comes from a long line of politicians from the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for 71 years until 2000. And though he and the other mayors are not eligible to run for re-election, their arrests could hurt their parties.

Zitacuaro, a town of 130,000, is surrounded by forests where tens of millions of monarch butterflies migrate each fall from eastern Canada and part of the United States. It draws thousands of tourists eager for a close-up view of the butterflies hanging from pine branches.

Corridor for U.S.-bound drugs
It is also a corridor for U.S.-bound drugs. Unlike such resort towns as Acapulco and Cancun, where shootouts and drug arrests have begun making headlines recently, Zitacuaro's emerging drug violence has gone largely unnoticed by the outside world.

But residents say there have long been disturbing signs. Soon after Calderon took office, the severed heads of two men were discovered in front of a Zitacuaro car dealership owned by the mayor's uncle.

Nearby was a cryptic message signed by the La Familia cartel, blamed for other grisly slayings in Michoacan — which factored into Calderon's decision to launch his offensive there.

Ixtlahuac's cousin, Juan Carlos Orihuela — the car dealership owner's son — is running for a federal congressional seat and another uncle is a congressman.

Nobody, not even opponents, ever publicly voiced suspicions about Ixtlahuac or his family.

Energetic, rising star
His supporters say the 28-year-old mayor, who took office in January 2008, is an energetic rising star who has won over the poor by distributing free medicine and health care to residents and has even dug into his own pocket to hand out cash to the needy.

The day after his arrest, hundreds of supporters marched through the town to demand Ixtlahuac's release, chanting "we want Tonito," as the trim, boyish mayor is affectionately known.

No demonstrators have turned out in support of a state police commander who was also detained.

Carlos Alzati, the No. 2 in the Zitacuaro administration, called the arrests a government ploy to discredit opposition candidates ahead of the July elections.

Although two of the targeted mayors belong to Calderon's party and a third is from a coalition including it, the rest are from opposition parties, most from the PRI. Calderon's party has suggested in the past that some PRI members were soft on drug trafficking, which the party vehemently denies.

At the town market, vendors complained people claiming to belong to the La Familia cartel have demanded money from shop owners in exchange for "protection" for their businesses.

"As to his (the mayor's) guilt, who knows?" said Alejandra Guzman, a 19-year-old shoe vendor. "Michoacan is a nest for organized crime. There are things that are open secrets. But it's a taboo subject."

'People had always been untouchable'
Fanny Moreno, 29, a gift shop owner, said she believes the federal government would not have arrested Ixtlahuac without cause. Describing the widespread corruption in town, she said friends have received extortion threats.

"I think it's great what happened because these people had always been untouchable," she said.

None of their political parties have come to the defense of the mayors, though some have criticized the way the arrests were carried out.

Relatives of the suspects filed complaints Thursday saying they were arrested without a hearing and were not told of the accusations against them, said Jose Luis Soberanes, head of the government-funded National Human Rights Commission.

Defense lawyer Ismael Jimenez said the government's case is based on flimsy evidence — a computer printout listing the suspects' names and the amount of cash they allegedly received from La Familia. The printout was found inside a drug suspect's vehicle.

The federal Attorney General's Office said there was other evidence to back up the list, but did not elaborate.

Now the challenge is to prosecute the officials, no small feat in a country where the vast majority of crimes go unpunished.

"There is a weakness in the police and judicial system," said Maureen Meyer, a Mexico expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, which promotes human rights and democracy in the region. "What happens now is a big question."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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