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Mexico drug war opens bloody new front on U.S. border
By Ignacio AlvaradoWed Mar 26, 4:50 PM ET
Brazen Mexican drug gangs are escalating their war with the army and each other, murdering a record 720 people this year and opening up a gruesome new battle front on the U.S. border near Texas.
Nationwide, the pace of drug killings is well ahead of last year, when President Felipe Calderon's military crackdown on the country's powerful smuggling cartels began in earnest.
As the army struggles to contain bloodshed in hotspots from the border area to the Caribbean coast, murders in rundown Ciudad Juarez, over the border from the Texan city of El Paso, have flared to unprecedented levels.
Some 200 people have been killed in drug violence in Ciudad Juarez so far this year, a tenfold increase over 2007, some shot dead on busy avenues or strangled after being tortured. Over the Easter weekend alone, 22 people were murdered in the city.
Police say Mexico's most wanted man, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who leads a consortium of traffickers from the Pacific state of Sinaloa, has taken his fight for control of smuggling routes to Ciudad Juarez, targeting the dominant Juarez cartel amid a much lighter army presence there than in other cities.
The Juarez cartel, weakened by the 1997 death of its leader Amado Carrillo Fuentes, is also being attacked by the Gulf cartel from eastern Mexico -- which has suffered under a strong military assault on its home turf and is looking for smuggling enclaves with fewer troops.
"It's a balloon effect. As the military presses down hard on one area, so the violence and the fight for smuggling routes moves to another, Ciudad Juarez," said Fred Burton, a drug trade specialist for U.S.-based intelligence group Stratfor.
"The Mexican military and police intelligence experts cannot cover all the drug hotspots all the time," he said.
Calderon sent out some 25,000 troops and federal police to crush drug gangs after taking office in December 2006. Drug turf wars killed more than 2,500 people in Mexico in 2007.
Calderon's main focus has been to weaken the Gulf cartel and control a vicious conflict between Guzman and the Arellano Felix family cartel in the northern border state of Baja California, across from San Diego.
VIOLENCE 'LIKE FIRE'
Soldiers have made historic drug seizures and several high-level arrests, cutting supplies to the U.S. market. But gangland murders in states like Baja California, where victims have been beheaded and dumped on streets, continue.
Mexico is, meanwhile, waiting on a $1.4 billion pledge by U.S. President George W. Bush to fund new equipment for the drug war. The plan is pending approval by U.S. lawmakers, who are concerned about a lack of detail on spending.
The bloodshed in Ciudad Juarez, extraordinary even for a city that has drawn worldwide attention in recent years for brutal murders of women, may have proliferated so fast because of acute police corruption and lawlessness.
When hitmen killed a police officer in Ciudad Juarez last week -- the third officer killed in the city in 48 hours -- the perpetrators hung around the crime scene for half an hour, confident they would not be arrested, witnesses said.
Bank robberies, kidnappings and car theft have all surged in the city this year.
"All our police forces are infiltrated (by drug gangs). All of them, it is as simple as that," said Jose Reyes Baeza, Governor of Chihuahua state, which is home to Ciudad Juarez.
With state authorities under pressure to stop the violence, analysts expect the army to send big convoys into Ciudad Juarez soon, even if that means neglecting other flashpoints.
"This violence is like a fire that if left unattended could become an inferno," said Carlos Murillo, a sociologist at the Colegio de Chihuahua research institute.
"The government cannot solve these problems easily, but it can send a message about who is in charge," he added.