MEXICO CITY — In recent years, Mexico City has shined as an oasis from the murderous mayhem plaguing parts of the country, a relatively safe place spared by drug cartels.
But the discovery of a mass grave near the city containing the remains of at least five of 12 young people kidnapped from a downtown bar in broad daylight has blemished the capital's image as a safe haven.
Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera has insisted that the nation's big cartels do not operate in the megalopolis despite the mass abduction, drawing scoffs from security analysts.
Prosecutors have linked the May kidnapping to a drug dispute between smaller, local gangs known as La Union and Los Tepis, which operates in the rough neighborhood of Tepito, home to most of the victims.
Two of the missing, aged 16 and 19, are sons of jailed gang members. Relatives deny they followed in their fathers' footsteps.
"Obviously, there is an organized crime presence in the city," Samuel Gonzalez, a security consultant and former federal anti-drugs prosecutor, told AFP.
"Even though they may be small, they showed their ability to make a dozen young people disappear," he said. "Their ability to make them disappear and the state's reaction only 80 days later are alarming."
The 12 missing, aged 16 to 34, were escorted by a group of men out of the Heaven bar and into several cars on a Sunday morning, May 26, just steps away from a federal police headquarters and the city's main boulevard.
Three months later, authorities discovered a concrete-covered mass grave on a ranch outside the city containing the remains of 13 people.
They confirmed Friday that at least five belonged to the Heaven group and were trying to identify the eight other remains amid fears that all were buried there.
Two bar owners have been detained over the case while the charred body of a third associate was found in a neighboring state. Mancera said more suspects should be detained.
On Saturday, the security department said extra police were deployed to Tepito while helicopter surveillance increased over the Zona Rosa district, a trendy area where the 12 were kidnapped.
Mass kidnappings and clandestine graves are more common in Mexico's cartel-dominated northern border cities and western states -- and are not what this bustling metropolis of 20 million people is used to.
The city has a relatively low murder rate of 12 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, six times lower than the cartel-plagued state of Chihuahua in a nation that has suffered 70,000 drug-linked murders since 2006.
While city authorities deny the presence of big cartels, the capital's former police chief and current head of the federal force, Manuel Mondragon y Kalb, said last month that top crime syndicates had "crystallized" in some parts.
Bernardo Gomez del Campo, a former Mexico City and federal security official, said the capital is a strategic area for organized crime because it serves as a transit point for drugs and weapons to other regions.
"All the (criminal) groups operate in Mexico City because it's a big place to hide in," he said, stressing that the cartels work at a "secondary level" here and usually avoid the type of headline-grabbing vendettas seen in border cities.
He also said city authorities are playing with legal words by suggesting that smaller gangs are not organized crime groups, as they do have a criminal structure and deal drugs.
Gonzalez, the former federal prosecutor, said whether a large or small gang committed the Heaven crime is irrelevant. What worries him is the possibility that two-bit criminals can commit such cartel-inspired crimes in Mexico City.
"The capital's authorities have the political and moral obligation to quickly figure out what happened in this case, otherwise it will demonstrate their inability (to stop such crimes) and it could foment violence in the city," he warned.
The case has put a spotlight on the Tepito neighborhood, notorious for its massive market of contraband goods.
But Maria Teresa Ramos, grandmother of one of the missing, 16-year-old Jerzy Ortiz, said the kidnapping "happened in one of the most protected parts of the city and this doesn't happen here."
© AFP 2014