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Body counts differ in Mexican drug war

| Tuesday, March 26, 2013, 6:54 p.m.

REYNOSA, Mexico — Heavy gunfire echoed along the main thoroughfare and across several neighborhoods in a firefight that lasted for hours, leaving perforated and burned vehicles scattered across the border city.

Social media exploded with reports of dozens dead. Witnesses saw at least 12.

But the hours of intense gunbattles in Reynosa on March 10 gave way to an official body count the next day of a head-scratching two.

The men who handle the city's dead insist the real figure is 35 or more, likely even more than 50. Ask where those bodies are, and they avert their eyes and shift in their seats.

Cartel members, they say, are retrieving and burying their own casualties.

“Physically, there are no bodies,” said Ramon Martinez, director of Funerales San Jose in Reynosa, who put the toll at between 40 and 50. “It's very delicate.”

If Reynosa is an example, even the government can't count how many are dying from drug violence. Felipe Calderon's administration stopped counting in September 2011. Since President Enrique Pena Nieto took office on Dec. 1, the government has issued monthly statistics, saying that January killings were down slightly from December. It said February had the lowest number of killings in 40 months — without providing numbers for the other 39 months.

Even officials have trouble settling on a figure. In April, the mayor of a town in Sinaloa state told news media that at least 40 people had died in shootouts between armed men and soldiers. State police later said seven. Local news media said 13.

Mexico City's Reforma newspaper is keeping its own count. It says the killings in Pena Nieto's first 100 days exceed those in the first 100 days of his predecessor, who intensified the country's assault on organized crime.

In Reynosa, the fight for territory has caused at least four major gunbattles this month, the result of a split within the Gulf Cartel after the Mexican government made significant blows to its leadership. The biggest was the capture of Gulf capo Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez in September, leaving a power vacuum and the anticipation that the battle would intensify south of the Texas border in northeast Mexico, a region that has experienced some of the most horrific violence.

Michael Villarreal, known as “Gringo Mike,” had moved against the man recently appointed by Gulf Cartel boss Mario “Pelon” Ramirez Trevino to run the cartel's business in Reynosa, an American law enforcement official familiar with the situation said on Monday.

The local boss heard Villarreal was coming for him and, with Ramirez's support, beat back Villarreal and his men.

State authorities said that “armed civilians” fought their way through the city across the border from McAllen, Texas, on March 10, blocking streets and leaving two bystanders dead.

“It's illogical,” said one funeral director, who asked not to be identified for safety reasons, speaking four days later. “People here agree that more than 50 have died.”

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