Maria Santos Gorrostieta, the former mayor of Mexico’s district Tiquicheo, had survived two assassination attempts which claimed the life of her first husband and left her with horrific wounds that never really healed.
But despite being a marked woman, Maria Santos Gorrostieta remained defiant to the very end.
With unimaginable courage, the 36-year-old stood up to the drugs gangs that had ravaged Mexico and Tiquicheo, the district where she once served as mayor. When some doubted that she had been shot, Maria Santos Gorrostieta bared the scars that riddled her flesh and swore she would never give in.
It was almost inevitable that she would eventually pay for her bravery with her life.
Her body – stabbed, burned, battered and bound at wrist and ankle – was found dumped by a roadside in San Juan Tararameo, Cuitzeo Township.
Maria Santos Gorrostieta left behind three young sons. Her second husband Nereo Delgado Patinoran, understood to have vanished at the same time she did, is still missing.
She had seen her government security team withdrawn in November last year, and then her police escort in January.
The decision has provoked much soul-searching in Mexico which has been torn apart by brutal drug cartels.
Maria Santos Gorrostieta had become an icon in Mexico for her work against the gangs and had been described as a heroine of the 21st century.
She was elected as mayor of Tiquicheo, a rural district in Michoacan, west of Mexico City, in 2008.
Almost immediately, she received threats. The first assassination attempt came in October 2009 when the car she was travelling in with her first husband Jose Sanchez came under fire from gunmen in the town of El Limone.
The attack claimed his life but Maria Santos Gorrostieta lived. An attempt had been made on Jose Sanchez’s life earlier that year, but he managed to escape the armed mob who came after him.
Maria Santos Gorrostieta bravely battled back from her injuries in the face of overwhelming tragedy, but she was not destined to know peace.
The next attempt on her life was just three months later, when an masked group carrying assault rifles ambushed her on the road between Michoacan and Guerreo state. The van she was traveling in was peppered by 30 bullets. Three hit her.
This time her injuries were more severe, leaving multiple scars and forcing her to wear a colostomy bag. She was left in constant pain.
A reporter was also wounded in the attack, as well as her press officer and brother.
In a famous act of defiance, she posed for pictures showing the extent of her horrifying wounds to draw attention to the brutality the drug gangs routinely mete out to their opponents.
In a statement to the public made at the time, the devout Catholic said: “At another stage in my life, perhaps I would have resigned from what I have, my position, my responsibilities as the leader of my Tiquicheo.
“But today, no. It is not possible for me to surrender when I have three sons, whom I have to educate by setting an example, and also because of the memory of the man of my life, the father of my three little ones, the one who was able to teach me the value of things and to fight for them.
“Although he is no longer with us, he continues to be the light that guides my decisions.”
She added: “I struggle day to day to erase from my mind the images of the horror I lived, and that others who did not deserve or expect it also suffered.
“I wanted to show them my wounded, mutilated, humiliated body, because I’m not ashamed of it, because it is the product of the great misfortunes that have scarred my life, that of my children and my family.”
“Despite my own safety and that of my family, what occupies my mind is my responsibility towards my people, the children, the women, the elderly and the men who break their souls every day without rest to find a piece of bread for their children.
“Freedom brings with it responsibilities and I don’t dare fall behind. My long road is not yet finished – the footprint that we leave behind in our country depends on the battle that we lose and the loyalty we put into it.”
After her ordeal Maria Santos Gorrostieta remarried and ran for a seat in Mexico’s Congress of the Union, but failed to gain the backing she needed.
Her family reported her missing on November 14 and her body was found three days later.
A murder hunt has been launched and police are still searching for her missing husband.
Mexico has been torn apart by murderous drug gangs since President Felipe Calderon launched his drug offensive in 2006.
More than 50,000 people have been killed in clashes between rival drug cartels and security forces and about two dozen mayors have been murdered.
The cartels have ruled the streets with fear for years, enforcing their authority with murders, bribery and torture.
But after decades of using force to combat the gangs, it is U.S. lawmakers who are the criminals’ biggest problem.
Legalization of marijuana, as recently voted for by Colorado and Washington states, may wipe billions of dollars from the cartels’ annual profits.
And it has left politicians in Mexico with a tough question: How can they continue to justify spending money – and lives – fighting drug distribution to America when it will be legal in some states from next month?
Mexico presidential advisor Luis Videgaray said in a radio interview last week: “Obviously, we can’t handle a product that is illegal in Mexico, trying to stop its transfer to the United States, when in the United States, at least in part of the United States, it now has a different status.”
From January to September last year, 12,903 people were killed in the country in drug-related crime, ranging from gang members, Mexican military and innocent victims caught up in gun battles.
The Mexican government claims they are winning the war on drugs, but few outside – or inside – the country believe that.
So corrupt are their police that they are rarely employed in combating the cartels. Instead, the country relies on its army to tackle the gangs while it attempts to rebuild its police forces.
Public support for the drug war continues to fall as the death toll rises and the cartels’ profits rise.
The business of trafficking drugs from Mexico into the U.S. is estimated to be a business worth between $13 billion and $49 billion, with 90% of all cocaine used in America originating from the country, according to a U.S. state report.
The U.S. Justice Department considers the cartels as America’s greatest organized crime threat, while conceding that it is U.S. dollars that fund the crime ravaging Mexico.
In 2009 a military assessment predicted that if the drugs war continued for another 25 years, Mexico’s government was at serious risk of collapse and the conflict would spread into America.
A year earlier, the U.S. Joint Forces Command suggested a similar time-scale of collapse in Mexico and warned American intervention may be necessary due to the implications for homeland security.
The problem of strengthening the Mexico/U.S. border even prompted President Barack Obama to deploy 1,200 National Guard troops in 2010.
The two major cartels in Mexico are now the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas.
The Sinaloa Cartel was formed when several gangs agreed to join forces in 2006 and is now led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
He is Mexico’s most wanted drug trafficker and is believed to be worth $1 billion. Forbes magazine even declared him the 55th most powerful man in the world in 2009.
Los Zetas were originally a mercenary outfit of former elite members of the Mexican army by the Gulf Cartel.
Consisting of Airmobile Special Forces Group and Amphibian Group of Special Forces members, they helped control parts of Mexico for the Gulf Cartel until its leader, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, was arrested.
Los Zetas took the opportunity to seize power for themselves and are now a 300-strong independent drugs and arms trafficking gang under the leadership of Heriberto Lazcano.
Maria Santos Gorrostieta was born in 1976 and graduated in medicine from a university in the city of Morelia.
She was elected mayor of Tiquicheo in 2008 and served until 2011. During that time she defected from the Institutional Revolutionary party to the left-wing Democratic Revolution party.
In January 2009 her husband Jose Sanchez Chavez was set upon by an armed group but escaped
In October that year Maria Santos Gorrostieta was attacked while she was with her husband as they drove along in El Limone. Jose died that day from gunshot wounds. She survived but was taken to a hospital in Morelia, the state capital.
On January 23, 2010, she was attacked by men with machine guns in Ciudad Altamirano Guerrero, on her way to an event at the City Hall. She was severely injured after being hit by three bullets, as well as receiving wounds in the crash after the shooting, and had to use a colostomy bag. Maria Santos Gorrostieta said her wounds left her in constant pain.
On Saturday November 17 her body was found by farm workers from San Juan Tararameo, Cuitzeo Township, who were heading to work. She was discovered on the property known as El Chupadero. The next day she was identified by members of her family.