Drug gang kills rivals at Mexican death cult shrine

Monterrey, Mexico - Hit men from Mexico's Gulf Cartel drug gang handcuffed three men and shot them dead at a death cult altar on Friday, leaving lit candles, flowers and a taunting message for rivals in a worsening drug war.

Police near the northern city of Nuevo Laredo found the corpses at a shrine to Santa Muerte, a religious figure worshiped by criminals and many of Mexico's poor.

"This is for everyone who messes with the Gulf Cartel. Welcome to Nuevo Laredo, bunch of assholes," read the message, written on orange paper and taped to a wall near the altar, set up below a highway bridge.

Based just south of Texas, the Gulf Cartel is at war over lucrative territory and smuggling routes with an alliance of traffickers from Sinaloa state, led by Mexico's most-wanted man, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman. At least 800 people have been killed this year.

Altars to Santa Muerte, often depicted as a cloaked figure similar to the Grim Reaper or as a skeleton wearing a white dress, are common in some Mexican neighborhoods.

Petty thieves, convicts and even middle-class professionals swear the saint protects them and brings them luck. The Catholic Church frowns on the cult, which has pagan roots, but many devotees also see themselves as Catholics.

President Felipe Calderon has sent thousands of troops and federal police to tackle drug cartels across Mexico, but the increased firepower has failed to contain the violence, including a recent wave of attacks on police.

Drug gang attacks have become bolder, including the killing of five soldiers in Michoacan state last week.

Responding to an anonymous telephone call, police found dozens of spent shell casings on the ground at the altar near the bodies, which had been shot in the head at close range, state authorities told Reuters.

A Mexican newspaper said the killers lit candles before they fled.

Suspected drug gang gunmen killed four policemen who worked as bodyguards for the family of the country's most influential state governor.

The officers, assigned to protect the family of State of Mexico Gov. Enrique Pena, were shot dead on Thursday night as they drove their sports utility vehicle in the Gulf port city of Veracruz, where the governor's young children were on vacation.

Pena, from the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, is one of the rising stars of Mexican politics and is often mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in the next election in 2012.