Ciudad Juarez car bomb shows new sophistication in Mexican drug cartels' tactics

By William Booth
Thursday, July 22, 2010; A10

MEXICO CITY -- The car bomb that exploded near the U.S. border in Ciudad Juarez last week was a sophisticated device never before seen in Mexico, triggered by cellphone after police and medical workers were lured to the scene, according to Mexican and U.S. investigators.

The attack, which killed a police officer, a doctor and a man used as a decoy, represents a clear escalation in the weapons and tactics employed by Mexico's powerful drug trafficking organizations, U.S. law enforcement agents say.

Bomb experts with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who have been training their Mexican counterparts, scrambled to help reconstruct the device. Parts of it recovered from the scene in downtown Ciudad Juarez were flown to Mexico City, where top officials from the United States and Mexico were briefed on the heightened threat.

U.S. and Mexican officials said they are taking seriously a message found after the attack that warned of more violence and demonstrated how closely the United States and Mexico are intertwined in the fight against the cartels.

Graffiti left on the wall of an elementary school Monday specifically warned the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration that more car bombs would follow in the next two weeks unless U.S. agents investigated alleged ties between Mexico's "corrupt federal authorities" and Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's Sinaloa drug cartel, which is fighting for control of the billion-dollar smuggling routes to the United States.

U.S. and Mexican investigators who have examined the bomb debris found that the assailants placed as much as 22 pounds of Tovex, a water gel explosive commonly used as a replacement for dynamite in mining activities, into an old Pontiac parked on the curb.

The assailants drew police and medical workers to the scene by leaving a bound, wounded man in a police uniform near an intersection and then calling in a false report that an officer had been shot.

The bomb was then detonated by cellphone by someone within the line of sight of the Pontiac. Metal objects were packed around the device, increasing its lethality by producing a spray of shrapnel.

"Somebody knows what they're doing," said a U.S. law enforcement official with knowledge of the improvised explosive device, or IED, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing security protocols. "It was complicated. It was not unlike the kinds of IEDs you see in Iraq, but not quite as sophisticated," the official said.

Bomb technicians in the United States said instructions for making such bombs are not easily gleaned from the Internet. "It's not like making a pipe bomb, which is relatively easy," one expert said.

Nongovernmental security experts in Mexico said they suspected that someone from Colombia's drug trafficking organizations or guerrilla forces might have supplied instructions or built the device, though they offered no evidence to support the speculation.

Diplomats, police and officials scrambled to assess the new threat.

In Washington, Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan told Congress, "What is important is not to create the perception that it was an indiscriminate act against civilians. It was not placed in the middle of a market. It was clearly directed against the police."

The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, said the violence in Mexico is disturbing but has not reached the level of terrorism.

"The bomb we saw in Ciudad Juarez and at the Nuevo Laredo Consulate, where they threw a grenade, are obviously acts that we have to worry about," he said. "But we must differentiate between what is terrorism and what is not."

Terrorism, the U.S. ambassador said, refers to the acts by groups with political objectives that seek to control the government.

"These drug cartels, they have enormous amounts of resources at their disposal," said U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. "They can buy any kind of capability they want. But we are determined, working with Mexico, to do everything in our power to reduce this violence."

In Mexico, opposition politicians and editorial writers scoffed at the assertion that a car bomb attack at a busy intersection in Ciudad Juarez was not terrorism and said that U.S. and Mexican government officials were playing down the threat because their actions -- and failures -- were partly responsible.

"Mexico confronts a serious situation like no other in history since the 1910 Mexican Revolution," the leader of Mexican Senate, Carlos Navarrete, said this week. "It is a struggle that has exhausted our government and the armed forces but has shown no reduction of the consumption of drugs or the availability of drugs in America."

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