TAMPICO, MEXICO – A shootout between soldiers and a group of armed men left three of the suspected gunmen dead in Tampico, a Gulf coast city, while two people were murdered in the border city of Juarez, Mexican officials said.
Troops were on patrol Tuesday afternoon in Tampico’s Primavera neighborhood when they came across three vehicles, whose occupants opened fire, the army said.
Two of the vehicles managed to get away and were not found.
The occupants of the third vehicle engaged army troops in a shootout that eyewitnesses said lasted an hour.
Soldiers shot the driver, who lost control and crashed into a wall, the army said, adding that three dead bodies were found inside the vehicle.
Several elderly people at a nearby nursing home were evacuated.
Tampico is in Tamaulipas state, where the Gulf drug cartel, one of Mexico’s most violent criminal organizations, operates.
Authorities in Ciudad Juarez, meanwhile, said they found two bodies in the city’s southwest section.
The government has deployed 8,000 soldiers and federal agents in Juarez, which is across the border from El Paso, Texas, in an effort to end the wave of drug-related violence in the city.
The Attorney General’s Office in Chihuahua state, citing eyewitnesses, said gunmen arrived in several SUVs and shot the two unidentified victims, whose bodies were taken to the coroner’s office.
Investigators found a large number of 9 mm bullet casings at the crime scene, the AG’s office said.
Since early March, federal authorities have bolstered “Operation Chihuahua,” which is trying to stem the violence in Juarez.
Chihuahua was Mexico’s most violent state in 2008, with 2,206 murders reported, while Juarez earned the dubious distinction of being Mexico’s most violent city last year.
In 2008, the border city experienced days when dozens of people were murdered in the span of a few hours, and armed groups committed acts of violence in public areas that terrorized residents.
The border city, home to the Juarez drug cartel, ended 2008 with a total of 1,605 people murdered, including 77 federal, state and municipal police officers, according to press tallies, making it the most violent city in Mexico.
The expanded army presence has helped reduce the violence in Juarez by about 76 percent, federal officials said.
Mexico has been plagued in recent years by drug-related violence, with powerful cartels battling each other and the security forces, as rival gangs vie for control of lucrative smuggling and distribution routes.
Armed groups linked to the cartels murdered around 2,700 people in 2007 and 1,500 in 2006, with the 2008 death toll soaring to 5,630, according to a tally by the Mexico City daily El Universal.
So far this year, more than 1,500 people have died in the violence in Mexico.
Experts say that Mexico’s most powerful drug trafficking organizations are the Tijuana cartel, which is run by the Arellano Felix brothers, the Gulf cartel and the Sinaloa cartel. Two other large drug trafficking organizations, the Juarez and Milenio cartels, also operate in the country.
Since taking office in December 2006, President Felipe Calderon has deployed more than 45,000 soldiers and 20,000 federal police officers across Mexico in a bid to stem the wave of violence unleashed by drug traffickers. EFE