The identification of the bodies of 12 young people abducted three months ago from a bar just a few blocks from police headquarters in Mexico City has set many in the capital on edge, who fear the hyper-gangland violence prevalent elsewhere now has arrived in this perceived oasis of peace.
"We're facing organized crime and we can't reject that line of investigation," Olivia Garza, a city councilwoman from the opposition National Action Party (PAN), said at a press conference. "We can't deny it exists and not investigate."
Mexico City's mayor and chief prosecutor have doubled down on their insistence that the kidnap and murder of the 12, most of them from the capital's Tepito district -- known for contraband and all sorts of vice --, has nothing to do with "organized crime."
"We aren't talking about any cartel or organized crime," Mexico City prosecutor Rodolfo Rios said, while confirming that all 13 bodies recovered from a farm outside the capital were related to the May 26 abduction in the Heaven Bar, on a quiet side street in the Zona Rosa, the capital's much faded center of nightlife. "We have been very precise in pointing out and knowing the difference of when it has to do with organized crime."
The Tepito 12, plus apparently one other man, were abducted at about 10 o'clock on a Sunday morning from the shabby bar, an unlicensed after-hours club just a few blocks from the US embassy and only a few more blocks from Mexico City police headquarters. As on every Sunday, thousands of bicyclists, including many families, jammed the Paseo de la Reforma a half block from the Heaven Bar as the crime was committed, apparently unaware.
Mexico City investigators quickly tied the abductions to the killing two days early of an alleged drug dealer at a disco in the nearby Condesa neighborhood, whose residential streets have become the Mexican capital's trendiest nightlife spot. The crime was part of a turf war between local gangs for street sales of illicit drugs, prosecutors said.
The investigation of the disappearance in the following three months proved to be a confusing farce not unfamiliar to any who follow Mexican law enforcement. An owner and several employees of the Heaven Bar were quickly arrested. The charred body of another owner turned up, along with those of his girlfriend and her female cousin, in a shallow grave in the mountains south of the capital.
Mexico City's investigators chased futile leads to several nearby states before asking the federal Attorney General's Office for help in mid-July.
The federal investigators turned up the bodies late last week on a ranch in the foothills of the twin volcanoes to the east of Mexico City. Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo termed the discovery a "coincidence," as authorities were searching for weapons at a suspected cartel safe-house when they were alerted to the clandestine grave tucked in a remote area beneath a concrete slab.
InSight Crime Analysis
Might organized crime groups really be operating in Mexico's sprawling, chaotic and relatively wealthy capital? The short answer is yes. City officials' hair-splitting on what defines organized crime proves both more than a little misleading and potentially quite dangerous.
It echoes the assurances by city and state officials in Monterrey -- the northern industrial city that is Mexico's third largest -- some years back that business and political leaders would keep the drug lords living there on a short leash. The gangland warfare that exploded in Monterrey in early 2010 has only recently subsided. Several thousands were killed or disappeared in the meantime.
Denial of such threats is a fool's game, fueling both complacency and cynicism. But any among the public now shocked by the Tepito youths' fate have been willfully blind as well.
While greater Mexico City has not yet suffered the wholesale slaughter that has marked gangland violence elsewhere, neither has it been the oasis that many perceive.
Local gangs dealing cocaine, amphetamines and marijuana to Mexico City youngsters in the city's bars, have always been closely linked to their wholesale suppliers in the large national cartels. Tepito, the neighborhood from which most of the victims hailed, has been known for generations as a fine place to buy smuggled or stolen merchandise, as well as to get mugged or worse, and is famous for having the capital's better known assassins.
The semi-rural town of Tlamanalco, where the Heaven Bar victims were recovered, has long been considered the fiefdom of the Familia Michoacana. It is from there that the violent criminal group managed the retail drug trade, extortion and other rackets affecting the greater capital area's 22 million residents.
As most everywhere else on Mexico City's outskirts, gangland warfare has raged in the town and in the nearby impoverished city of Chalco as the Familia Michoacana fights off incursions by the Knights Templar, the Zetas, the Jalisco Cartel-New Generation (CJNG) and a myriad of other criminal groups.
Two years ago, Mexico state police recovered more than 60 bodies either dumped or buried within Tlamanalco town limits, some of them victims of a notorious kidnapping ring known as Los Aboytes.
Apart from that, the lords of the country's major crime families have long made their home in the capital, as fond as any other moneyed Mexican of its fine restaurants, quaint and quiet neighborhoods and varied entertainment.
They include Amado Carrillo Fuentes, former head of the Juarez Cartel, and his son Vicente; a son of Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, one of El Chapo Guzman's closer Sinaloa Cartel colleagues; and former leader of the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) Arturo Beltran Leyva.
The bodies of the murdered Heaven Bar co-owner and his two companions were found near the town of Huitzilac, just south of Mexico City limits. That is very close to where squads of federal policemen ambushed two CIA operatives with murderous intent last summer. Press reports suggested that Hector Beltran Leyva, who took over the family business after his brother's death, spends time in the area.
Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera, who previously was the city's chief prosecutor, told CNN last month that activity leading to the sort of violence that claimed the lives of the Tepito youths couldn't legally be construed as organized crime.
"For you to speak of organized crime there should be specific crimes," Mancera said, pointing to the city's moderate murder rate. "What we have found in Tepito, and what arrests there have been in different eras, are of people who associate to commit crimes."
"Then to where should our fight be directed?" Mancera asked. "Toward perceptions."
Do tell, Mr. Mayor. Do tell, indeed.