MEXICO CITY — The body of 36-year-old Hugo Hernandez was left on the streets of Los Mochis in seven pieces as a chilling threat to members of the Juarez drug cartel. A note read: "Happy New Year, because this will be your last."
To drive home the point, the assailants skinned Hernandez's face and stitched it onto a soccer ball.
The gruesome find, confirmed Friday by Sinaloa state prosecutors, represents a new level of brutality in Mexico's drug war, in which torture and beheadings are almost daily occurrences.
Hernandez was taken to Sinaloa after being kidnapped Jan. 2 in neighboring Sonora state, in an area known for marijuana growing, said Martin Robles, a spokesman for Sinaloa prosecutors. The motive for his abduction was unclear.
His torso was found in a plastic container in one location; elsewhere another box contained his arms, legs and skull, Robles said. Hernandez's face, sewn onto a soccer ball, was left in a plastic bag near City Hall.
More than 15,000 people have been killed since President Felipe Calderon launched a crackdown on cartels three years ago. While the border cities of Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana have seen much of the violence, Sinaloa state is Mexico's drug-smuggling heartland and is the birthplace of the leadership of four of the six major cartels.
Often, victims are tortured and mutilated, in an attempt to intimidate rivals, officials and others who might represent a threat to the cartels.
Often, it works.
In the northern city of Saltillo, a major regional newspaper announced it would stop covering drug violence altogether after the body of a reporter was found Friday outside a motel with a threatening message. Valentin Valdes had recently written about the arrests of suspected drug traffickers.
"As of today we will publish zero information related to drug trafficking to avoid situations like the one we went through today," an editor of the newspaper Zocalo told The Associated Press. Tellingly, he asked that his name not be published.
Many Mexican news media have stopped covering anything that might be associated with drugs, or limit themselves to reporting on government news releases. At least 17 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 1992 in direct reprisal for stories, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Valdes had written about the Dec. 29 arrests at the Marbella Motel of five alleged members of the Gulf drug cartel. He also covered the arrests Wednesday of five others who barged into the same hotel and stole the surveillance tapes.
The 28-year-old reporter was shot to death, and his body was dumped outside the Marbella Motel.
The Coahuila state Attorney General's Office said a handwritten message left next to his body read: "This is going to happen to everybody who doesn't understand, the message is for everybody."
Such threatening messages are frequently left by Mexican drug cartels.
The influence of cartels has increased to such an extent that on Friday all 60 policemen in the embattled town of Tancitaro were fired because they had failed to stop a series of killings and other crimes. Michoacan state police and soldiers will take over security duties in the town.
In December, eight government officials including the mayor of Tancitaro resigned their posts saying they had been threatened by drug traffickers.
The town is in a drug-plagued area and in March the top city council member, Gonzalo Paz, was kidnapped, tortured and killed.
Still, one Mexican official said progress was being made.
Mexico's Ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, said that "we have begun to see important results in the ability of U.S. government to detain the flows" of drug-related weapons and cash into Mexico over the two countries' border.