MEXICO CITY — Drug traffickers took the unusual step of using an airplane to drop thousands of leaflets on the northern city of Culiacan accusing the governor of Sinaloa state of taking orders from drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, authorities said Wednesday.
Drug cartels in Mexico have long posted videos and hung banners from bridges to get their messages out, and they have recently taken to dumping truckloads of bodies on roadways to intimidate rivals or publicize threatening messages.
But the incident in the Sinaloa state capital of Culiacan on Tuesday is the first time in recent memory that traffickers have resorted to aerial leafleting. It may mark a further escalation in what has become a nationwide, military-scale battle between the Sinaloa cartel and the hyper-violent Zetas gang.
"I think they dumped them very early in the morning from an airplane. They surely know that it would be very difficult to do by land," Sinaloa Gov. Mario Lopez Valdez said.
While drug cartels have occasionally left small amounts of crude, photocopied letters in some towns in the past, security expert Raul Benitez at the National Autonomous University of Mexico said it was the first time he knew of such mass leafleting, much less from an aircraft.
"I can't remember any cartel having used an airplane to do this, nor of them having distributed propaganda in public places," said Benitez.
The single-page, computer-printed leaflets were unsigned, but expressed anger at the in-custody killing of a suspect who was recently arrested and sent to a prison allegedly dominated by the Sinaloa cartel.
The suspect, who had been identified as a member of the Beltran Leyva gang, whose remnants have allied with the Zetas, was killed by another inmate three days ago.
The leaflet read in part, "The governor, on orders from Chapo Guzman, told the federal prosecutor's representative to send Javier Avilez Araujo to be tortured and murdered in the state penitentiary."
"Act like men, don't kill people who are tied up like El Chapo Guzman does," it continued. "Without the help of Malova, we would have finished your people off already!" the note added, using the governor's nickname.
The governor denied he hasany links to Guzman. "This is a person I don't even know, whom I have never had contact with and from whom I have never received an order," Lopez Valdez said.
The wording of the letter suggests it may have been written by the Zetas, who have launched tit-for-tat attacks on Sinaloa strongholds after Sinaloa cartel gunmen and their allies moved into Zetas turf in the Gulf coast states of Veracruz and Tamaulipas.
Both sides have trumpeted their incursions by dumping truckloads of bodies, presumably of rivals, but apparently also including some innocent people.
"There is a tremendous war between the Zetas and Sinaloa," said Benitez, the security expert.
While it once would have been unthinkable for another gang to try to enter the home turf of Sinaloa, which was long considered Mexico's most powerful cartel, the battle may be becoming more equal.
The leafleting in Culiacan could be another indication of the Zetas' confidence. The leaflet concludes with a veiled threat, "We all have vulnerable spots, and sooner or later you pay for what you do."
"Both (cartels) are big, but in different ways," Benitez said. "The Sinaloa cartel is very powerful in monetary terms, but it has a weak force of hit men. And the Zetas are weak in terms of money, but they are very strong in military terms, they have real armies of killers."
The tit-for-tat battle is only likely to continue, he said. "It's about attacking enemy territory ... they keep striking blows against each other."
Sinaloa state police spokesman Edmundo Apodaca said investigators were trying to determine how the leaflets were dropped. No one actually saw the airplane that supposedly dropped them.
But he dismissed the accusations against the governor, calling them "just another reaction by the criminals against the measures being taken" by the government.