By Patrick Rucker and Armando Tovar
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The bodies of 35 people with suspected links to organized crime were dumped on a road in eastern Mexico on Tuesday in a major escalation of violence in the once-quiet port city of Veracruz.
The bodies were piled into two trucks abandoned under a highway bridge in Boca del Rio, about 3 miles from the city center, horrifying passers-by on the busy thoroughfare.
Photos circulated on social media networks showed bodies heaped up in the back of the trucks and lying on the tarmac. "Keep away ... hooded men unloaded bodies from trucks, slow traffic, danger zone," one Twitter user warned.
Local media reported some of the corpses, of both men and women, had their hands bound and showed signs of torture, and authorities said they were believed to be members of a criminal gang.
"These were people involved in organized crime," state prosecutor Reynaldo Escobar told the Milenio television station. All seven people whose bodies were identified in the hours after the dumping had criminal records, he added.
Violence between rival drug cartels has been heating up in the coffee- and sugar-growing state of Veracruz and daily newspaper Milenio said the dead were members of the feared Zetas crime gang, the target of several recent official round-ups in the region.
About 42,000 people have been killed since President Felipe Calderon launched a campaign against drug cartels in late 2006. Most of the violence has been focused on the northern border with the United States, but has started encroaching on other parts of the country as some gangs fracture and old alliances dissolve.
Violent incidents in the Gulf city of Veracruz had been rare until recently, but a group of armed men hurled a grenade into a popular area of the city in August, killing one person. This week, 32 prisoners escaped from jails in Veracruz state, but Escobar said there was no sign any of the escapees were among the dead.
"We have never seen a situation like this before," he said.
The Gulf of Mexico port is used to ship goods to Europe, making it a coveted spot for the crime gangs to control as the groups expand their global reach, said independent Mexican security expert Alberto Islas.
"Veracruz is an important strategic port. That has always been true for trade and commerce, but it's now also true for drug exports," Islas said.
While the Zetas and Gulf cartels have had a strong foothold in Veracruz, other gangs like the Beltran Leyva and Sinaloa cartel are also moving in, Islas said.
The Zetas are a paramilitary-style group founded by deserters from Mexico's army special forces who split off from their former employer, the Gulf cartel.
They were blamed for a recent attack on a Monterrey casino which killed more than 50 people, many of them women, and for the massacre of 72 migrants last year.
The Zetas and their former bosses are now fighting a battle for lucrative drug-smuggling routes to the United States in a rivalry which has engulfed the prosperous business city of Monterrey and the state of Tamaulipas in northern Mexico.
(Writing by Mica Rosenberg and Krista Hughes; Editing by Peter Cooney and Vicki Allen)