If Jeremy Clarkson were to be believed Mexico is the sun-parched land of dusty streets were moustachioed layabouts in oversized ponchos are busy shoeing off flies in the shade of run down cantinas.
Having been there a couple of times I know it is beautiful place, nothing like the stereotypes, full of warm people nourished by thousands of years of history and culture.
Sadly, all Mexico positives are being overshadowed by a terrible plague of robberies, killings and rapes sweeping through the country. The grim tide is perpetrated by drug cartels that in recent years have ratcheted the violence up to unprecedented levels and transformed much of Mexico into lawless no-go areas.
Over the last few years vicious battles for territory on the US/Mexico border regions of Chihuahua and Baja California have spread inland and infected Sinaloa, Durango and have far south as Acapulco. Once a thriving international tourist destination Acapulco has suffered the indignity of shoot-outs taking place in broad daylight on its main beaches. This year 15 headless bodies were found dumped in front of one the towns popular shopping malls. This isn't the kind of getting "off their head" that most tourists have in mind and they have understandable left in droves.
The escalation of violence is mainly caused by a turf war between the La Familia, Sinaloa and Las Zetas cartels vying over important trade and sale routes. Combine this with President Felipe Calderon's decision to deploy military troops throughout the country to fight the cartels and the resulting carnage has led to a downhill spiral of death affecting local politicians, soldiers, gangsters and civilians alike.
This power struggle has led gangsters to devise increasingly extreme means to exert their dominance and intimidate their rivals. Beheadings, hangings and quartering bodies are common place.
When you thought the violence can't get any worse the inhumanity has taken a sick twist. This week The Houston Chronicle managed to secure an interview with a gangland member with connections to the Las Zetas cartel who revealed that fellow gangsters have taken to kidnapping bus passengers and forced them to into bizarre gladiatorial fights to the death for their own amusement.
Winners are said to be offered a chance to become members in what he calls
"Who is going to be the next hit man?"
Those who survive are taken captive and eventually given suicide missions such as riding into enemy turf and challenging its rivals at gunpoint.
His account is corroborated by the grisly discovery in April near San Fernando, Tamaulipas on the aptly named "Road of Death" where 200 bodies were uncovered in mass graves. Most are thought to have been dragged off buses travelling in the area. Sixteen police officers were arrested for allegedly covering up the slayings at the behest of Las Zetas. Bus companies have stopped all travel near Matamoros and eye witness accounts have detailed how blacked out SUV's have hijacked whole buses stripped its passengers naked, raped the woman and took the rest away.
Not a conventional means of attracting new members, Las Zetas also operate a more conventional means of recruiting going so far as hoisting vacancy banners over busy intersections in broad daylight. They act with such impunity it is obvious that they have a wide cross section of the police and local government in their pocket. The Department of Homeland security admit that it’s not just Mexican officials that have been bribed to look the other way.
The Las Zetas affiliate says that drug smuggling is no secret
"We don't hide it. The trick is to send someone in advance to bribe a commander so a drug load won't be bothered. "
Tales of openly off-loading tractor-trailer rigs of cocaine in parking lots are rife.
"These are not lies. Everybody in Mexico knows it."
With a healthy demand across the border in the US, an administration riddled with corruption an large percentage of its population living in poverty the huge incomes generated by the drug trade are going to continue to be an attractive proposition to many. Everyday people are paying a high price for such a dangerous combination of socio-economic factors.
It truly is heartbreaking to see such a beautiful country sink into the mire in this way.