In Mexico, Cartel Assassins of Increasing Skill

A forensics team examines the scene of Huerta's murder. Assassins fired 85 rounds at Huerta's SUV, hitting him 40 times. No nearby vehicles were hit by stray bullets.
A forensics team examines the scene of Huerta's murder. Assassins fired 85 rounds at Huerta's SUV, hitting him 40 times. No nearby vehicles were hit by stray bullets. (By William Booth -- The Washington Post)
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By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 12, 2008

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico -- The hit was fast, bold, lethal. Jesús Huerta Yedra, a top federal prosecutor here, was gunned down last week in a busy intersection 100 yards from the U.S. border in a murder of precise choreography.

In Mexico's chaotic drug war, attacks are no longer the work of desperate amateurs with bad aim. Increasingly, the killings are being carried out by professionals, often hooded and gloved, who trap their targets in coordinated ambushes, strike with overwhelming firepower, and then vanish into the afternoon rush hour -- just as they did in the Huerta killing.

The paid assassins, known as sicarios, are rarely apprehended. Mexican officials say the commando squads probably travel from state to state, across a country where the government and its security forces are drawing alarming conclusions about the scope and skill of an enemy supported by billions of dollars in drug profits.

"They are getting very good at their jobs," said Hector Hawley Morelos, coordinator of the state forensics and crime laboratory here, where criminologists and coroners have been overwhelmed by more than 1,600 homicides in Juarez this year. "The assassins show a high level of sophistication. They have had training -- somewhere. They appear to have knowledge of police investigative procedures. For instance, they don't leave fingerprints. That is very disturbing."

Alejandro Pariente, the spokesman for the attorney general in Chihuahua state, said, "They are called organized crime for a very good reason. Because they are very organized."

In Ciudad Juarez, a tough industrial city across the river from El Paso, where 42 people have been killed in the last week, the morgue serves as a grim classroom for the study of drug violence along the border.

In an interview last week, a busy coroner in the forensics lab spoke while performing an autopsy. A dozen dead men awaited final exams, sprawled on metal tables, their bodies pebbled with fat bullet holes, open eyes staring at fluorescent bulbs. The men were all eventually classified as "organized crime" homicides, which account for the majority of deaths in Ciudad Juarez, the most violent city in Mexico.

On Monday, federal Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora said there have been 5,376 drug-related killings this year in Mexico, double last year's number. Later that evening, Victor Hugo Moneda, who led Mexico City's investigative police agency, was killed in an ambush as he was exiting his car at his home in the capital. The assailants, using a car and motorcycle, fired 22 shots, according to police.

In the Juarez morgue, the three walk-in freezers are filled to capacity with more than 90 corpses, stacked floor to ceiling, in leaking white bags with zippers. After a few months, those who are not identified are buried in a field at the city cemetery at the edge of the desert.

"The patterns that we often see with organized crime homicides are high-caliber weapons, multiple wounds, extreme trauma," said Alma Rosa Padilla, a chief medical examiner, who completes as many as five full autopsies each day. "They don't go to the hospital."

One U.S. anti-drug law enforcement officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he works in Mexico, said, "The Mexican army has had a problem with deserters. So have the police, including special anti-crime units. They are now working for the other side."

More than a dozen top Mexican law enforcement officials have been detained recently for allegedly working for the drug cartels, including Noé Ramírez Mandujano, the nation's former top anti-drug prosecutor. He was arrested last month on suspicion of accepting $450,000 in exchange for sharing intelligence with traffickers.


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