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Border & Immigration

Violence Reaches New Peak In Mexican Drug War

Members of the Mexican military police keep guard at the scene of the murder of two women aged 17 and 21 March 24, 2010 in Juarez, Mexico.
Spencer Platt
Members of the Mexican military police keep guard at the scene of the murder of two women aged 17 and 21 March 24, 2010 in Juarez, Mexico.

Over the past two weeks, hundreds of people have been gunned down in Mexico as drug violence continues to escalate. The surge in killings comes as President Felipe Calderon is ramping up efforts to win more public support for the drug war.

Calderon said this week that the bloody offensive against the drug cartels isn't just his war but is an effort to make Mexico safe for all law-abiding citizens.

More than 23,000 people have died in drug-related violence since Calderon took office 3 1/2 years ago. Outbursts of gunfire are common. It seems that nowhere in the country is immune.


Scene Of A Shootout

Plaza Cigarrera looks like a boring strip mall in Tepic, capital of Mexico's Pacific coast state of Nayarit. But a few days ago it was the scene of an intense firefight between cartel gunmen and police and the Mexican military.

Jose Garcia works at the taxi stand out front, hailing cabs and helping people with their shopping bags. He says people heard the shots and started running. "People were yelling, 'They're shooting! They're shooting!' " he says.

The gun battle went on for at least 20 minutes.

With dozens of other people, Garcia took refuge in a low-end clothing store where people can buy $10 soccer jerseys on credit.


All the businesses locked their doors, Garcia says. Some people were locked in the supermarket for more than a hour.

Bullets ripped through the children's play area at the adjacent Burger King. Ulyses Ramirez, a cook there, says eight windows shattered but no customers were hurt. "There was a lot of panic. There were children," Ramirez says. "The bullets were entering the restaurant."

He says everyone dropped to the floor for cover, and eventually the staff herded all the customers into the kitchen.

The shootout left eight presumed drug cartel members and one policeman dead.

Not An Isolated Incident

If this had been a lone shootout in this city of 300,000 people, residents might have written it off as a fluke and moved on. But shootings like this have become common as the Sinaloa cartel fights members of the Beltran-Leyva organization for control of Tepic.

After 30 people were gunned down last weekend, the governor seized control of the local police, called on Calderon to send in more federal police and shut public schools statewide.

Ramon Perez, a retired teacher, says the governor did the right thing in closing the schools. "The governor is making sure that none of the bullets hit any of the students," Perez says, by basically sending children on summer vacation three weeks early.

Several shootings have occurred near schools. Last week, the assistant director of the local prison was gunned down — along with his wife and his bodyguard — as he dropped his kids off at a school.

Calderon: 'It's Worth The Effort'

Drug-related violence is happening all across Mexico. According to the national newspaper El Universal, 96 people were killed on Monday alone, the highest daily death toll since Calderon declared war on the cartels in December 2006.

And the killing continued the next day. In the tourist town of Taxco, south of Mexico City, soldiers fought a 40-minute gun battle with alleged cartel hitmen that left 15 people dead.

As frustration with the drug war grows, Calderon this week tried to rally the Mexican people behind the effort.

On Monday, Calderon published a 5,000-word defense of the strategy in several newspapers. On Tuesday, he gave a passionate televised address to the nation calling on Mexicans to join in the fight against organized crime.

Although he acknowledged that this fight will not be easy.

"It's worth the effort to continue on with this fight," Calderon said. "It's worthwhile in order to build a free and safe country." And he said to give up in the drug war would be to abandon Mexico and leave it in the hands of organized criminals.

More than halfway through his term and with violence reaching new peaks, Calderon said the drug war won't be easy or quick, but he said it's a war that "we will win."