MORELIA, Mexico: A Mexican mayor was having breakfast with his wife in a restaurant when he was gunned down this week. To avoid a similar fate, mayors in the western state of Michoacan admit they must pay off drug cartels.
Wilfrido Flores Villa, interim mayor of the Michoacan town of Nahutzen, was the 31st mayor to be killed in Mexico since a spiral of drug-related violence began to engulf the nation in 2006.
"The lack of security has affected us. It is something that everybody knows about but doesn't talk about, because we are afraid of facing organized crime," said one of five mayors who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
"We have to pay them a tax," the mayor said. "They don't leave you a choice. As the saying goes, 'either cooperate, or it's your neck.'"
The gangs operating in Michoacan, where the Knights Templar cartel emerged, shake down everybody from the wealthy to the poor. They must all pay up to avoid being kidnapped or killed.
"It's not something we want to do. It's something we are forced to do. We have nowhere to flee to. They don't give you an option," the mayor said.
Gang members brazenly walk into city halls without warning to collect their extortion money, which amounts to around $800 per month.
This happens right under the nose of federal troops who have been deployed since 2006 to crack down on the country's drug cartels.
"We want action, coordination, results for people, not just statements," Michoacan Governor Fausto Vallejo said Wednesday after talks with Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong.
"Before, they would tell us, 'here come 20,000 soldiers to protect you from crime,' and if the soldiers, the marines and the federal police arrived, the criminals would go on vacation," he said. "Now, we need different results."
Some 50,000 troops were deployed across the nation by then president Felipe Calderon in 2006. Since then, more than 70,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence as cartels battle each other and the authorities.
His successor, Enrique Pena Nieto, took over in December vowing to shift the focus towards reducing everyday murders, extortion and kidnappings afflicting Mexicans by creating a new federal police force. But he is keeping troops on the streets for now.
While local authorities, including police and elected officials, are often accused of colluding with cartels, they have also fallen prey to the violence. Most of the killings of mayors have taken place in Michoacan and the northern state of Durango.
In November, Maria Santos Gorrostieta, a former mayor in the Michoacan town of Tiquicheo, was found dead with signs of torture. She had survived two assassination attempts while she was in office from 2008-2011.
The mayor of the town of Inde in Durango said in November that officers from his own municipal force tried to kidnap him in an attack that left eight people dead.
Mayors from towns along Michoacan's borders with other Mexican states are the most at risk since gangs have fierce fights for control over these areas against the Knights Templar.
But Vinicio Aguilera Garibay, a regional prosecutor in the state capital Morelia, said that paying money to gangs is a crime.
Mayors threatened by drug gangs have an obligation to file complaints with the authorities, as the money they give to the criminals comes from public coffers, he said.
"Whoever is part of a legally constituted body cannot participate in organized crime or delinquency in any shape or form," Aguilera Garibay told AFP. "You can't make a payoff. It's illegal."
But mayors say they live in fear of gangs whose arsenal, which includes assault rifles, is more powerful than that of municipal police forces.
The lack of police protection prompted an entire town called Cheran to form its own vigilante force in July 2011 to fight off illegal loggers in their woods. A neighboring Michoacan town, Urapicho, also took up arms last year and a similar movement emerged last month in the neighboring state of Guerrero.