Bernandino Hernandez  /  AP
Relatives weep after gunmen opened fire on a taxi killing the driver and the passenger in the Pacific resort city of Acapulco, Mexico. The brutal public killings that began about five years ago have worsened as Mexican drug cartels try to one-up each other in their quest to scare off rivals.
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updated 10/7/2011 4:26:50 PM ET 2011-10-07T20:26:50

Masked gunmen dump the bodies of 35 slaying victims during rush hour as terrified motorists watch and tweet friends to avoid the highway.

A woman's decapitated body is left at a city's monument to Columbus, the head atop a computer keyboard with a sign saying she was killed for blogging about drug traffickers.

The severed heads of five men are dumped outside an elementary school in Acapulco, and two more near a military base in Mexico City days later.

And that was just in the last three weeks.

Mexico's 'never befores' hit a new low

The brutal public killings that began about five years ago have worsened as Mexican drug cartels try to one-up each other in their quest to scare off rivals, authorities and would-be informers — and still stun Mexicans increasingly numbed to the gory spectacles.

"These gangs have to keep escalating because they want the shock value but the shock value wears off," said Clark McCauley, a psychology professor at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and an expert on terrorism. "Now, to get a headline you have to get more heads, or more bodies or do something more horrific."

Latin American drug lords have long turned to grisly killings and torture tactics. At the height of its powers in the 1990s, the Juarez cartel used to cut off the fingers of snitches and shove them down their throats, a practice that other cartels soon followed.

The current show of savagery began in April 2006 when two police officers were decapitated; their heads dripping blood were left in the resort city of Acapulco, where four alleged members of the Zetas drug cartel had been killed in a shootout with police. Along with the heads was a sign that warned, "So that you learn to respect."

The Zetas are a gang of drug smugglers and hit men led by deserters from an elite Mexican army unit, who for many years were assassins for the Gulf cartel.

Five months later, the La Familia cartel rolled five human heads purportedly belonging to Zetas across a dance floor in the western state of Michoacan. An attached note said La Familia "doesn't kill for money, doesn't kill women, doesn't kill innocents, just those who should die," an apparent retaliation warning for the particularly violent group.

Since then, drug traffickers have plunged into even more gruesome tactics. They have tied victims to overpasses and shot them to death during rush hour as sickened motorists watched. Some have decapitated people alive and then posted videos of it on the internet.

Story: Kidnap victims allegedly held in Mexican jail

"In terms of the cruelty, it's the Zetanisation of the country because the Zetas were the first to introduce these ghastly tactics into Mexico," said George W. Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, who has written several books about the rapidly expanding drug cartel. The Zetas are the game-changers.

Officials blame a group calling itself the "Zeta Killers" for dumping 35 bodies on a busy boulevard in the Gulf coast city of Veracruz on Sept. 20. They say the group also killed 32 people whose bodies were found at three houses in the area on Thursday.

On Monday, police in Mexico City found two severed heads on a street near a major military base accompanied by a note referring to the "Mano con Ojos," or "Hand with Eyes," drug gang. Motorists called the police after spotting one of the heads on the hood of an SUV.

"If you want to have cartel cred," said Grayson, "you have to show you can carry off any act at any time and go as far as your enemy."

Bloody turf battles
Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna has said Mexican drug traffickers copied the terror tactic from the al-Qaida in Iraq after it posted videos on the internet of the decapitations of Americans. He said the cartels are using al-Qaida's methods to pressure the government to halt its crackdown against drug traffickers, which has fractured many of the gangs.

Authorities have also said that in 2005, the Zetas began enlisting "Kaibiles," former members of an elite Guatemalan counterinsurgency unit, to train newly recruited foot soldiers. The Kaibiles were known for massacres during the Guatemalan civil war that ended in the mid-1990s.

Very few of the killings result in arrests or convictions, so the only deterrent is revenge by another cartel.

In the five years since the beheading of the two Acapulco police officers, decapitations have become almost weekly occurrences and a prime terror tactic.

The practice dates back at least 2,000 years, said Dr. Michelle Bonogofsky, an bioarchaeologist who edited two books on the significance of of the human head in different cultures, from skull collection to decapitations.

"One of the worst things you can do to the body, in some instances, is to desecrate or dismember it and historically, this has been used by kings and various other groups to establish control," Bonogofsky said. "This could be tied to the religious belief that you need your body intact to be resurrected."

Residents in some cities caught in the bloody turf battles are already adapting to living with violence, said Dr. Oscar Galicia, a psychology professor who specializes in violent behavior at Iberoamerican University in Mexico City.

In the northern city of Monterrey, where the Zetas are fighting the Gulf drug cartel, many people don't go out at night in certain neighborhoods, they avoid night clubs and bars and have added extra locks to their doors at home.

"What people are doing in Monterrey is adapting," he said.

More worrisome is that the prolonged violence is creating a sense of helplessness among Mexicans, who are becoming increasingly numb to what's happening, Galicia said.

"Now if it's not 20 bodies, it doesn't get our attention and that's terrible and really dangerous for our society because we're becoming as desensitized as the criminals," he said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Interactive: Mexico's drug-trafficking landscape

Photos: Narco culture permeates Mexico, leaks across border

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  1. Tijuana, June 2009: Mexico's drug culture is defined by guns and money, to be sure, but it includes sex, movies, music and even a heavy dose of religion. It also extends across the border into the U.S.

    Since 2008, photojournalist Shaul Schwarz has been documenting that culture. Presented here are snapshots of that coverage, starting with what makes it all happen: cash. This stash was confiscated and the alleged courier, seen at center, was detained by Mexican soldiers.

    "Since the beginning of President Felipe Calderon's drug war in 2006, Mexican officials have held press conferences to show detained suspects," Schwarz notes. "At the same time the violence persists" -- with nearly 35,000 people killed through 2010. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Three young men died in this shootout in the parking lot of a shopping mall. In the first half of that year, more than 1,000 drug war deaths were counted in Juarez alone. The city of 1.3 million has been the center of a drug turf war between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Residents of a neighborhood survey the site where a body was found, presumably another victim of drug turf clashes. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Mexico City, July 2009: Mexico's drug and gang culture has a strong religious streak. Thousands of devotees seen here attend a mass for Santa Muerte -- Saint Death -- a mythical figure condemned by the Catholic Church but embraced by many poor and criminal elements. This gathering is outside a shrine in Tepito, a gritty neighborhood famous for its street markets brimming with pirated and stolen merchandise.

    "Its violent and dangerous streets serve as a sort of mecca for Santa Muerte followers," Schwarz says. "Tepito is also home to the most popular Santa Muerte shrine, which sits outside a modest home. On the first day of every month, the shrine fills with followers who come bearing statuettes of the saint. Some pilgrims make their way from the subway on their knees; many smoke weed or cigars with their saints." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Mexico City, October 2009: Devotees of Saint Judas Thaddaeus inhale glue out of plastic bags to get high as they gather outside San Hipolito church during the annual pilgrimage honoring the saint.

    Judas Thaddaeus is the Catholic Church's patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes, but in Mexico he is also known as "the saint of both cops and robbers (and prostitutes), as well as one of the biggest spiritual figures for young people in Mexico City," Schwarz says. "He has become the generic patron saint of disreputable activities. His biggest – and most important shrine – is at Hipolito, one of the best preserved colonial churches." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mexico City, October 2009: This shrine in the Colonia Doctores neighborhood pays homage to both Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde, reputedly a bandit killed by officials in 1909.

    Jesus Malverde is revered by many as a Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the poor. Several dozen such shrines exist in this neighborhood and in Tepito, where the cults thrive. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Tijuana, June 2009: A shrine to Santa Muerte sits above a home in the notorious Colonia Libertad neighborhood. The shrine is walled in by the old border fence separating Tijuana from San Diego. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Tijuana, March 2009: A man peeks through a fence toward the U.S., studying Border Patrol movements before crossing. New fences are constantly being built to deter illegal immigrants and drug traffickers.

    In 2010, President Barack Obama ordered some 1,200 National Guard troops to the Southwest border and also signed a $600 million bill to fund 1,500 new Border Patrol agents, customs inspectors and law enforcement officials. But the U.S. has also had to pull the plug on a troubled $1 billion "virtual fence" project meant to better guard stretches of the border. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Tijuana, June 2009: Federal police pat down a stripper during the raid of a large dance club. Several nightclubs in the notorious downtown red-light district were raided that night. Other parts of the strip continued as normal, with foreigners approaching young prostitutes as families with small children walked by with little notice and mariachis played on. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Ciudad Juarez, December 2008: A woman's body lies on the autopsy table where it was discovered that she was raped and then murdered in what was made to look like a suicide.

    "Violence against women has also surged in correlation to the daily multiple uninvestigated and unpunished homicides," Schwarz says. "The coroner's office is open 24/7 and employs more than 100 doctors, technicians and investigative specialists, who cover Ciudad Juarez and northern Chihuahua state." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Tijuana, June 2009: The drug culture is often portrayed by Mexican cinema. Here director Antonio Herrera films a scene for "Vida Mafiosa" -- Mafia Life -- a low budget film glorifying the culture. "This is the only thing selling at the moment for me," Herrera said at the time as he worked to complete his seventh narco film. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Tijuana, November 2010: A scene from "El Baleado" -- The Shooting Victim -- shows young men being executed shortly after smuggling drugs in from a beach. The film was produced by Baja Films Productions, a family-owned company that almost went out of business until family member Oscar Lopez, a San Diego resident, convinced his father to make a narco film. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Tijuana, April 2010: Los Angeles gangsters hang out at the production of a narco film. One of the gang members (not pictured) was an extra in the film. "That was a good excuse for them to come down to TJ and party where the drugs and women are cheap," Schwarz says. "It's common for gangsters/narcos to want to appear in these films." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Mexico City, October 2009: Devotees of Saint Judas Thaddaeus gather outside San Hipolito church. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Tijuana, June 2009: Young Mexicans in the Colonia Libertad neighborhood smoke pot and hang out at a spot overlooking the border with the U.S. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Burbank, Calif., April 2010: Alfredo Rios, better known by his stage name "El Komander", walks down a street just outside the studio of his agent and music producer. From Sinaloa, El Komander is one of the hottest singers/composers of "Narcocorrido" songs, which glorify the drug culture.

    "He regularly performs at private parties for Sinaloa's cartel members as well as composes songs for/about them, at times even commissioned by the drug lords," Schwarz says. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Tijuana, April 2010: Narcocorrido performer "The Scorpion" (whose real name is Amador Granados) shows off his belt while on the set of a Baja Films Productions movie that translated into English means: Seagulls Don't Fly Alone. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Culiacan, March 2009: A man and his two sons visit Culiacan's main Jesus Malverde shrine, located across from a McDonald's and near the state legislature.

    "The narco culture is becoming more and more mainstream and the shrine draws people of all walks of life," Schwarz says. "Many visitors leave Polaroid photos with pithy notes giving thanks to Malverde."

    "The image of his mustachioed face, bedecked with a neckerchief, a gold chain with a pistol charm around his neck, and a large belt-buckle with a pistol around his waist can now be found all over the U.S.," Schwarz adds. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. El Monte, Calif., April 2010: The Bukanas De Culiacan band gets ready to perform during the launch event of "Movimiento Alterado," a new form of Narcocorrido gaining popularity. "Narco music clubs are mushrooming all over L.A., and up and down the West Coast," Schwarz says.
    "It's a social movement of people who came from nothing and dream of a chance out," said Joel Vazquez, the band's manager. "It's a lot like hip hop or gangsta rap, except it's Mexican culture, not black." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pico Rivera, Calif., April 2010: Partyers use the bathroom at El Rodeo Night Club, one of the many big Narcocorrido clubs in the Los Angeles area. "The cross-over music scene and culture is generating hybrid fashion trends and lifestyle ties between the Sinaloa mainstream, in Mexico and the Mexican-American mainstream culture in L.A.," Schwarz says. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Police protect a crime scene where two bodies were found in the desert near the border with the U.S. Much of Mexico's drug violence is due to turf wars for control of the border routes. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Culiacan, July 2009: The Jardines del Humaya Cemetery hosts many grave sites dedicated to drug traffickers. Some are two- and three-stories tall; many have bulletproof glass, Italian marble and spiral iron staircases.

    "Inside the mausoleums are pictures of the deceased, often men in their 20s and 30s, and signs of Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde," says Schwarz. "And, as in many of the cemeteries found in the drug-war inflicted Mexico, rows of freshly dug graves await their new tenants." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Apatzingan, April 2010: This home hadn't been touched in the two years after it was shot at and burned down by soldiers in a deadly attack on members of the La Familia drug cartel. Many of its leaders were born in this town, and in December 2010 one of its founders was killed by soldiers there. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. The religion

    Culiacan, July 2009: A young man makes his way to the shrine of Jesus Malverde. Culiacan is the capital of the northwestern state of Sinaloa, long a hot bed of drug cultivation. For decades traffickers have worshipped at the shrine, helping to spread Malverde's fame. "Followers call Malverde the Robin Hood of Mexico," Schwarz says. "Critics say he has become a symbol of crime. Drug traffickers claim him as their own." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Tultitlan, November 2009: Santa Muerte devotees attend a service in the courtyard of a church with a 65-foot-tall statue of the mythical figure. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Angeles National Forest, Calif., August 2009: Santa Muerte worshipers gather in a creek just outside Los Angeles. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: This bridge to El Paso, Texas, is one of the legal border crossings into the U.S. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Tijuana, March 2009: Mexico's military shows off the results of a raid on a party: assault weapons and the arrests of 58 people. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Culiacan, July 2009: A new inmate kisses his wife goodbye as their daughter cries.

    The Culiacan prison is notorious for violence and riots. "Security forces most often stay outside just along the perimeter of the prison and do not go in to the living quarters themselves," Schwarz says. "Weed, other drugs and cell phones along with statues of saints are common inside this typical Mexican jail." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Tijuana, March 2009: A drug addict sits in a tent where he lives along the border canal with the U.S. "The border canal has become a regular spot for junkies to use heroin," Schwarz says. "While the Mexican police do nothing, the U.S Border Patrol are just out of jurisdiction." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Mexico City, October 2009: Jose Garcia Pichardo prays and smokes a cigar at the Santa Muerte altar in his bedroom. Pichardo said he once was a drug dealer and that two years earlier the Santa saved him from the police. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Women spread flour to soak up blood where a young man was murdered. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the border city that year, and another 3,000 in 2010.

    "As a photojournalist I have covered conflicts and wars since 1996, but Mexico’s present situation haunts me like no other," Schwarz says. "While death statistics have been documented ad nauseum, far less has been said about the broader social reality created by the drug trade. As I continue to cover this story that seems to have no end in sight, I plan to focus not only on the harsh existence in border towns, but on the culture created for millions of Mexicans and Americans inevitably involved in or affected by the drug trade and a desire for “narco luxury.” (Shaul Schwarz/ Reportage By Gett / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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