, Mexico, Jul 27 – Close to a black cross where Mexican drug cartels used to place the severed heads of their rivals, and near the site where the mutilated bodies of 12 police officers were found, a vendor has little success at his roadside stall selling "lucky" toy rabbits.
The wind-up rabbits wobbled and jumped around a small wood table the vendor had set up on the Four Roads route, on a road in this largely rural western Mexican state known as "Michoacan Bravo" — Wild Michoacan.
The state is home to La Familia Michoacana, a ruthless, pseudo Christian cult-like drug organization that made its appearance in dramatic fashion in 2006 when members rolled five decapitated heads onto a nightclub dance floor.
Violence has since been on the upswing, even after President Felipe Calderon deployed thousands of soldiers and federal police to this state — his home state — of 4.2 million residents.
Even toys "don’t distract us," said the middle-aged vendor, gazing sadly at the ground.
"The truth is we don’t believe in anything, not lucky amulets, not anything," said Rosalba Hernandez, who was at a federal police checkpoint outside the town. "Things get worse every day."
Several Michoacan communities have lived up to their unruly reputation: in late May federal police arrested 10 mayors, a judge and 16 other local officials for their alleged links with organized crime.
Those arrested included the mayor of Apatzingan, Genaro Guizar, whisked off to an out-of-state maximum security prison. Federal documents show that he testified to receiving regular payments of more than 15,000 dollars.
Violence in Michoacan hit a new high after police arrested Arnoldo Rueda, an alleged top La Familia operative, on July 10.
Gang members responded by attacking eight police stations across the state with machine guns and grenades, killing at least four officers. Days later, authorities found the bodies of 12 other police officers.
Police say Rueda is a key cartel operative in charge of managing synthetic drug production and shipping marihuana and cocaine to the United States.
One La Familia leader even proposed talks with Calderon to negotiate a "national pact" that would end drug violence — an offer the government quickly rejected.
On July 20 Calderon ordered 2,500 soldiers to Michoacan, adding to the 1,500 federal police and 1,000 soldiers already deployed there.
The highway checkpoint outside Nueva Italia, population 30,000, "is a show of strength," said Alejandro Carmona, the police officer in charge of the 20 agents carefully checking cars.
Plenty of people in this farming community appear linked to the drug trade, as marijuana plants grow amid the legal crops.
Added Carmona: "There are going to be more arrests."
In one show of force, 14 federal police officers — or men posing as federal police — wearing hoods burst into the home of Nueva Italia resident Dionicia Villa.
"They dragged out my son and beat him. My daughter too," said Villa, bursting into tears.
The men "said they were looking for a man that lived here, and asked where he was. I told him that no, that man does not live here."
The man police wanted was Servando Gomez Martinez, a member of the La Familia cartel leadership also known as "El Tuta".
A toddler not quite two years old at the house is Gomez Martinez’s daughter, Villa said.
"But that was my daughter’s slip-up; she was 16 when she had an affair with that man, and has not seen him since," Villa sobbed.
The poverty in Nueva Italia contrasts sharply with the luxury vehicles that roll through the town streets.
While ordinary folks like Villa, who makes and sells tortillas for a living, struggle to survive, La Familia’s widespread organization makes "stratospheric profits", a state intelligence agent told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"In Michoacan alone 60 kilos (132 pounds) of cocaine are consumed every day," the agent said.
The group "is also involved in bootlegging, kidnapping, and even hotels, informal car lots, real estate sales, bars, nightclubs — it is an infrastructure that provides lots of jobs," the agent added.
"It doesn’t matter how many soldiers they send, or how many road blocks they set up, there will still be men and women ready to enter (the drug trade) if the government does not do something to get us out of poverty," said Juan Alberto Fernandez, a 70 year-old lemon grower.