The drug lords at war in central Mexico are no longer content with simply killing their enemies. They are putting their severed heads on public display.
In Michoacan, the home state of President-elect Felipe Calderon, 17 heads have turned up this year, many with bloodstained notes like the one found in the highlands town of Tepalcatepec in August: "See. Hear. Shut Up. If you want to stay alive."
Many in Michoacan's mountains and colonial cities are doing just that: They are tightlipped, their newspapers are censoring themselves and in one town, 18 out of 32 police officers quit saying they had received death threats from drug smugglers.
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.
By a highway outside Tepalcatepec, suspected drug smuggler Hector Eduardo Bautista's tortured body was dumped on July 10. Near a black metal cross put up by his family at the spot, killers apparently avenging his death have been leaving severed heads -- five so far -- each with a threatening message.
Beheadings and accompanying notes in sometimes cryptic and misspelled Spanish are becoming a ghoulish vogue among the gangs that grow marijuana, cook methamphetamine and run cocaine in Michoacan.
There have been 420 homicides in the state this year, including 19 police chiefs and commanders, and Juan Antonio Magana, the state's attorney general, says well over half the killings were drug-related -- the work of smuggling gangs reorganizing after authorities captured some of their top leaders.
"These are groups that are very big, very strong and are out to dominate territory," Magana said in an interview.
Drug smuggling in Michoacan has traditionally been controlled by a syndicate known as Los Valencia. Police arrested its leader, Armando Valencia, in August 2003 and one of his lieutenants, Carlos Alberto Rosales Mendoza, a year later.
Now, anti-narcotics investigators say, the Gulf cartel based in northern Mexico is battling its way into Los Valencia territory, relying on "Los Zetas," ex-Mexican army operatives-turned hit men. Los Valencia loyalists have fought back fiercely.
Many notes attached to slaying victims are signed "The Family," a possible reference to Los Valencia. Some mention "La Chata," a known alias for a top cartel hit man.
"They don't need to leave written messages. The mere fact that they are using such high levels of violence is sending messages of intimidation, causing fear," Magana said. "But doing it shows other gangs they can act in even more gruesome and violent ways than their rivals."
With a vast and sparsely populated Pacific coast and the rugged Sierra Madre del Sur Mountains, Michoacan is good territory for producing and smuggling drugs.
Many farmers have abandoned avocado, coffee and corn in favor of marijuana in the highlands, where roads are few and police cannot easily penetrate. Smuggling gangs have cleared forests for airstrips. Small planes crammed with Colombian cocaine streak in, leaving loads that are ferried to the coast and stowed on fast boats that speed north toward the US border.