CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico – The shootout between rival drug gangs that left at least 15 people dead in the northern state of Chihuahua has put the spotlight on the spike in violence in Mexico, where 19 other people died last weekend in the same region.
Wednesday’s shootout in a mountainous area left at least 15 gunmen dead and 12 others wounded, Chihuahua Attorney General’s Office spokesman Felix Gonzalez said, adding that the death toll could “rise a lot.”
Officials initially said that 26 gunmen died in the shootout, but the death toll was revised downward after police arrived in the area a few hours later.
The shootout occurred around 5:00 am Wednesday in Las Varas, a community outside the city of Madera, where gunmen killed two state police officers on June 25.
Madera, a highland city, is about 536 kilometers (333 miles) southwest of Ciudad Juarez.
The gunfight pitted gunmen from the La Linea gang against a cell of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel, Gonzalez said.
La Linea provides enforcers for the Juarez cartel in its war against the Sinaloa organization for control of smuggling routes into the US in northern Mexico.
Police arrested five suspected gunmen and the security forces are searching for others.
The wave of violence in northern Mexico is a “reaction” to “Operation Fortaleza,” a joint state-federal operation that has produced large drug seizures in the region, the AG’s office spokesman said.
Chihuahua Security Commissioner Oscar Alberto Aparicio, for his part, said the security operation had put pressure on the drug cartels, forcing them to move into new areas controlled by other gangs.
Chihuahua “was a comfortable place” for criminals during the 2010-2016 administration of former Gov. Cesar Duarte, a member of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) who is a fugitive after being charged with corruption, Aparicio said.
“These criminals were the ones who killed two of our officers in a cowardly manner barely a week ago. We had already identified about 50 members of this group,” Aparicio said.
Last weekend, 19 people died in drug-related violence in Mazatlan, a port city in the northwestern state of Sinaloa.
Since Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” (Shorty) Guzman’s extradition to the US on Jan. 19, rival factions have been fighting for control of the criminal organization.
The Sinaloa cartel, sometimes referred to by Mexican officials as the Pacific cartel, is the oldest drug cartel in Mexico.
The Sinaloa organization, according to intelligence agencies, is a transnational business empire that operates in the United States, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the Americas and Asia.