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Killings surge in Mexico state at tip of Baja Peninsula as gang factions fight over drug trade

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MEXICO CITY — The normally bucolic, vacationer-crowded state at the tip of Mexico's Baja peninsula has become a battleground, with dozens of killings in a power struggle following the capture of drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman nearly a year ago.

The bloodshed has been concentrated in La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur state. In the latest killings, two men bound, gagged and showing signs of torture were dumped onto streets in exclusive neighborhoods Sunday and another person was found shot to death Tuesday.

The local newspaper El Sudcaliforniano, which puts the mounting death toll in each headline on stories about violence, has reported 46 homicides in and around the city so far this year. That doesn't include the apparent shooting victim on a La Paz sidewalk Tuesday. Federal statistics through October counted 48 killings for the entire state.

Baja California Sur is better known for its beaches and Los Cabos resorts that draw thousands of American tourists. But since last year it has experienced a level of drug violence it had previously been spared.

Many of the cases have been gangland style killings, victims bound, shot, strangled or burned inside a car. Mexican authorities say it is the result of a battle for control of the drug trade since Guzman's February arrest and several other high-profile takedowns in the past year of leadership in Mexico's powerful Sinaloa Cartel.

A law enforcement official, who could not be quoted by name because of security reasons, told The Associated Press in October that criminal factions were competing for power. "It appears they're still working out how all this is going to fit together," he said.

PHOTO: FILE - In this Feb. 22, 2014, file photo, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted to a helicopter by Mexican navy marines in Mexico City, Mexico. The normally bucolic, vacationer-laden Mexican state at the tip of Baja peninsula is now the scene of dozens of killings in what authorities call a power struggle resulting from the February arrest of international drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 22, 2014, file photo, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted to a helicopter by Mexican navy marines in Mexico City, Mexico. The normally bucolic, vacationer-laden Mexican state at the tip of Baja peninsula is now the scene of dozens of killings in what authorities call a power struggle resulting from the February arrest of international drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo, File)

It is not clear why the war among factions of the Sinaloa Cartel, named for the Pacific coast state where it was founded, had jumped the Gulf of California to Baja California Sur. But the cartel long battled the once-powerful Arellano Felix gang for control of drug routes on the Baja peninsula into the U.S. and is largely considered to have taken over the territory. Some of Sinaloa's biggest marijuana growing and warehousing operations have been found in Baja California Norte state close to the U.S. border, under which the cartel has built elaborate underground tunnels for smuggling.

The law enforcement official said a new generation was stepping forward that included the sons of Guzman and Sinaloa boss Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada.

Earlier this month, Mexican authorities arrested one of Zambada's sons, Ismael Zambada Imperial, alias "El Mayito Gordo," in Sinaloa state. Jose Rodrigo Arechiga Gamboa, a top enforcer for the Sinaloa cartel nicknamed "El Chino Antrax," was arrested in the Netherlands in December and extradited to the U.S.

Just days earlier, Mexican security forces may have killed another top Sinaloa cartel lieutenant, Gonzalo Inzunza Inzunza, alias "Macho Prieto," during a gunbattle. Inzunza's body was not found at the scene, but federal officials said they believed he had been shot and carried by fleeing gunmen, as cartel gunmen sometimes do with fallen gang members or leaders.

The surge in killings from the drug infighting has been surprising for a state that is still managing to attract foreign tourists. Its past tranquility even drew drug capos themselves. In 2012, federal police just missed nabbing Guzman in a coastal mansion in Los Cabos.

In 2010, federal police arrested Teodoro Garcia Simental, a high-ranking member of the Tijuana cartel known as "El Teo," in his home in La Paz. Last year, Francisco Rafael Arellano Felix, the eldest brother of the that drug clan, was shot to death in Los Cabos by a gunman dressed as a clown and in 2006, another brother, Francisco Javier, was captured by the U.S. Coast Guard in a fishing boat in international waters off the Baja coast.

According to statistics from Mexico's government, the entire state had 56 killings in 2013, its highest total in 16 years. The state is on pace to exceed that total this year. Just in October, 13 people were slain, the highest single month total since December 1997.

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