Mexico's Drug Cartels Take Barbarous Turn: Targeting Bystanders

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 30, 2008

GUAMUCHIL, Mexico -- The three teenagers started their big weekend singing "Happy Birthday" to the parish priest.

The next day, they prayed for hours with their church youth group, then went on to a quinceañera, Mexico's archetypal 15th-birthday celebration. As the party wound down, they talked their parents into letting them go for a late-night cruise down the main drag in Guamuchil, a Saturday night ritual in this sleepy market town, friends and family say.

During that cruise, investigators believe the teens inadvertently blocked drug cartel assassins in hot pursuit of their enemies. Once police arrived in the wee hours of July 13, the assassins were gone but the three teens and a 12-year-old girl who was riding with them lay dead in their cars. Four others -- another teenager and three adults -- were dead in nearby cars. There were 539 bullet casings on the ground.

The killings here -- a massacre of eight people who were not suspected of drug-trafficking ties -- punctuated a vicious turn in Mexico's drug war, a savage conflict between rival cartels and the federal government that has taken more than 7,000 lives in the past 2 1/2 years.

In the past, cartels have killed their rivals, as well as police and public officials. Occasionally even family members have been slain. Yet in recent weeks, an increasing number of innocent bystanders have been gunned down by suspected drug cartel hit men here in Sinaloa, a cartel stronghold on Mexico's Pacific coast, as well as in the brutally contested drug corridors along the U.S. border.

In most instances, investigators believe, the victims were merely at the wrong place at the wrong time, gunned down by assassins who were once known for their precision but have now taken to wildly spraying bullets. The effect of the carnage has been widespread terror and a society afraid to demand justice.

"They have us in a panic," Luciana Arredondo Arredondo, a prosecutor in Guamuchil, said of the cartels in an interview. "They have us terrorized."

Here in Sinaloa -- a drug-trafficking haven where more than 580 people have been killed since January -- the danger to innocents has reached crisis proportions, Graciela Domínguez, a state legislator, said in an interview at her office in the state capital, Culiacan.

"You don't have peace of mind walking the streets -- you don't have peace of mind at home," she said.

Three days before the massacre in this town, cartel assassins killed 11 people in three daylight shootouts in Culiacan. Among the victims were two college professors who had the misfortune to be waiting in a car repair shop when the shooting started. Cartel members also are blamed for holding hostage dozens of customers in a Mazatlan shopping center and firing bazookas into a Culiacan neighborhood, though no civilians were killed.

In a country where drug trafficking touches nearly every village and mountain range, Sinaloa state is generally considered the ground zero of Mexican organized crime. The Sinaloa cartel is Mexico's largest, authorities say, and has been rapidly expanding by crushing rivals or making alliances with other trafficking organizations in a loosely configured conglomeration known as the Federation.

Sinaloa is the starting point for much of the drugs that pass through Mexico to the United States. The long, narrow state stretches over 450 miles of coastline laced with tiny inlets and bays, affording drug traffickers countless clandestine drop points for shipments of cocaine, heroin and marijuana. Once on shore, traffickers can quickly squirrel away their cargoes in rugged nearby mountains where villagers tend to be more loyal to the cartels than to law enforcement.

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