Toluca, Mexico - Less than two hours away from Mexico City, 50 marines and police officers manned a checkpoint, pulling over trucks, cars and taxis to look for any drugs or weapons.
“It is really good that you are doing this operation. We really needed this,” a man with a wife and a baby told a marine armed with an M16 rifle as officers sifted through their taxi outside Toluca, the capital of Mexico state.
Worried about an outbreak of gangland murders in the state surrounding Mexico City, authorities launched Operation Armor last week, deploying 3 000 police officers, marines and soldiers to stem the violence.
Although Mexico City has mostly escaped the drug war that has bloodied the rest of the country, the 84 murders on its outskirts in January alone serve as a stark reminder of the danger lurking on its doorstep.
The newspaper Milenio said it was the deadliest month since 2007, surpassing the 79 killed in August 2012.
President Enrique Pena Nieto, a former Mexico state governor who took office in December, has promised to tweak the battle against drug cartels in order to focus on reducing everyday violence.
But the homicidal binge has persisted across the nation, and right under his nose.
While 22 people were murdered in the capital over one weekend this month, the city prosecutor called it an “atypical” spate of violence unrelated to organized crime.
Outside the capital, however, the violence is blamed on a gang turf war.
On January 14, six cut-up bodies were found in plastic bags in the trunk and on the seats of a car in the Toluca suburb of Zinacantepec - a hallmark of drug cartels.
Nine days later, the dismembered bodies of 12 people, stuffed in black plastic bags, were discovered in two different locations on the same day.
One of the discoveries was made near a Coca-Cola plant, on a road lined with small homes, taco stands and mom-and-pop shops, where trash bags containing the body parts of six people were left inside a green van.
“I remember when it didn't used to be like this, many years ago,” said Jose Luis Rosales, 62, who owns a water filtering business a few meters (yards) from where the van was found in the blue-collar neighborhood.
“I live in fear now,” he said. “You only saw this sort of thing in the movies.”
Mexico state Governor Eruviel Avila Villegas has blamed the recent violence on a battle between the drug cartel La Familia Michoacana and rival gang Guerreros Unidos. But he called the violence a “sporadic” event.
“The federal and state authorities acted rapidly and we will definitely prevent the state from being a place that criminal gangs or organized crime fight over,” he was quoted as saying in the newspaper El Universal.
Operation Armor was deployed in six municipalities around Mexico City and two more near Guerrero state, a state security spokesman told AFP. Twenty mobile checkpoint units are at work and have checked 7 500 vehicles so far.
Eleven alleged members of La Familia were arrested last week in connection with the body parts found in Toluca.
Avila Villegas spoke before a security meeting between governors of six central states, Mexico City's mayor and Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong on Monday that was planned before the recent spate of violence.
Osorio Chong announced that a joint police-military operation would be launched to reinforce security along the nation's roads, noting that crimes “begin or end” there.
This shows that the new government is far from ready to return troops to barracks despite plans to replace them with a new federal police force modeled after France's gendarmerie.
Pena Nieto's predecessor, Felipe Calderon, deployed 50 000 troops across the country after he took office in December 2006, a decision that critics say unleashed violence that has killed more than 70 000 people.
“I want to reiterate what President Enrique Pena Nieto has said, that the army will remain in the streets ... until crime levels go down throughout the country,” Osorio Chong said. - Sapa-AFP