SAN PABLO OJO DE AGUA, Mexico (AP) _ Toribio Gargallo was a legendary ''cacique,'' a rural chieftain who could murder with impunity. The day after he died, police began pulling skeletons from wells on his ranch. So far, they've found 26.

Officials are still digging for more victims of Gargallo, who controlled a huge swath of Veracruz, one of Mexico's richest states. He amassed wealth and power at gunpoint, and kept the peasants in line.

Only a few of the skeletons have been identified. They are presumed to be rival politicians or businessmen, or peasants.

Gargallo told an interviewer in 1985 that caciques ''are necessary to the system. We are the people who maintain control and calm.''

But Gargallo ran afoul of the system he had served half his life, an intricately woven network of political and economic power. His life ended on Oct. 10 when he and five of his pistoleros were gunned down by more than 50 policemen who had staked out Gargallo's daily route.

The nightmarish excavation that followed is a reminder of the black bargains struck routinely in a system that prizes control above all.

Caciques arose from the chaos that followed Mexico's independence from Spain in 1821. Dictator Porfirio Diaz, who ruled from 1876-1910, made the chieftans his personal instruments of control. Today they serve a state that has been run by the same party since 1929.

Control of the volatile countryside, home to the poorest of Mexico's 40 million poor, has always been vital to the Institutional Revolutionary Party.

''Caciques exist where there is need for political and economic control. They thrive on poverty, ignorance and isolation,'' said Javier Rodriguez Trujillo, a peasant rights activist.

Some caciques adopt the role of benefactor and adorn themselves with civic honors. Some, like Gargallo, rule purely by the gun.

Gargallo's domain spanned tens of thousands of fertile acres where sugar cane grows as high as a house. He grew rich and powerful by reputedly doing the bidding of the even richer and more powerful.

''Veracruz has always been a land of caciques,'' said Justa Molina, a newspaper editor in Cordoba, the prosperous coffee, cane and cattle city where Gargallo lived.

''If you want to get rich, you can do it easily - as long as you control land.''

For 20 years, Gargallo was untouchable. He publicly boasted he had lost count of the people he'd murdered. He prided himself on his connections.

''I collaborate with the governor. I'm the friend of police chiefs and military commanders,'' he said in the 1985 interview with Proceso magazine.

Now that death has lifted Gargallo's cloak of impunity, prosecutors say his gunmen have accused several prominent citizens of hiring him to kill political and business rivals. Some say Gargallo died because he was out of control, beyond the bounds of his unwritten contract. Others believe he was a knight sacrificed in a complex chess game played by rival masters.

The official version is that he ran a routine roadblock.

Gargallo grew up on a communal farm in San Pablo Ojo de Agua, a tiny village in a mountain-ringed valley near Cordoba. By the time he was old enough to vote, he was a famous pistolero in the pay of a local cacique.

After his mentor died, Gargallo assembled his own band of gunmen. His legend and his fortunes prospered.

''He was one of our sugar mill's biggest suppliers,'' said local grower Juana Lopez. ''But we never knew where his cane came from, whether he grew it - or demanded it.''

No one dared to ask, she said.

Pascual Cruz Naredo knows the answer to that question. The 55-year-old farmer watched Gargallo grow up. He watched him go bad.

''It is the truth,'' Naredo said slowly. ''We had to give him two loads of cane, about 20 tons, every harvest. He was a violent man.''

There was no point complaining to the authorities, Naredo said. Local officials served at Gargallo's pleasure.

No one wants another cacique in San Pablo Ojo De Agua, one of many villages Gargallo controlled. But scores of Gargallo's gunmen are still at large, and one could be preparing to take over.