MEXICO CITY — A shootout in northern Mexico left at least 14 people dead Wednesday, according to government officials. It was the latest mass killing
amid a sharp resurgence of violence related to the country’s drug war.
The gunfight occurred between rival drug gangs in a rural part of Chihuahua state, which borders Texas and New Mexico, according to the state prosecutor’s office. Initial reports put the death toll at 26, but Felix González, a spokesman for the state prosecutor, said that 14 deaths had been confirmed as of Wednesday afternoon.
The violence follows a deadly incident Friday in which 17 suspected drug traffickers were killed near the Pacific Coast city of Mazatlan in a confrontation with police that some relatives of the victims suspected might have involved extrajudicial killings. Three days later, nine people were killed in the state of Puebla, east of Mexico City, as part of a festering dispute among fuel thieves.
The recent violence has underscored the deteriorating security across Mexico. More than 11,000 people were killed in the first five months of this year, an increase of 30 percent over the same period last year, putting Mexico on pace for what could be the deadliest year in its post-revolution history.
After an initial decline during the first two years of Enrique Peña Nieto’s presidency, killings have roared back to levels that are comparable with those during the worst years of the country’s drug war.
Violence has been fueled by fractures within long-dominant drug cartels, the growing demand for heroin and other opiates across the border in the United States, and the widespread corruption within Mexican government and security forces, which allows lawlessness to flourish.
Chihuahua has a long history of drug-war violence, including in Ciudad Juarez, the border city that came to symbolize the savagery of the violence.
The governor of Chihuahua, Javier Corral, of the opposition National Action Party (PAN), has accused his predecessor, César Duarte, from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), of ignoring criminal cases and brokering deals with drug cartels. Duarte fled last year to El Paso and is wanted on corruption charges.
Corral told the Wall Street Journal this week that drug traffickers were “sent to the Sierra de Chihuahua, and they began to take control of the towns, the local police forces, and they became bosses of the whole territory.”
The Wednesday clash occurred after 5 a.m. in a village called Las Varas, in the municipality of Madera, between a drug gang known as La Linea and another from the state of Sinaloa, González said.
In recent years, La Linea was allied with the Juarez cartel, which battled Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel for control over Ciudad Juarez. Since Guzmán’s extradition to the United States this year, security experts have noted significant clashes within and among cartels as they jostle for supremacy.
Las Varas, a farming and livestock community more than three hours from the state capital, has only one small clinic, which is not capable of treating the victims, said Elias Acosta, a spokesman for the municipality of Madera. He said that state police have been responsible for the security of the town since February and that municipal police have been disbanded.
“We heard the shots” and people shouting, a woman who works in a hat shop in Las Varas said by telephone. “We didn’t know whether to run outside or stay put.”
The woman, who declined to give her name because she was afraid, said that some residents, including her brother, fled into the surrounding forest.
In recent days, about 250 Mexican soldiers and police have been taking part in an operation called “Fortaleza” in this part of Chihuahua, after suspected members of La Linea killed two state policemen last week. Some 60 members of the security forces responded to the scene of Wednesday’s shootout and confronted 80 gunmen in the two drug gangs, said Oscar Aparicio Avendaño, the state security commissioner. A two-hour gun battle ensued, he said.
“Las Varas is a difficult place to access, sparsely populated, and there weren’t civilians around, that’s why there wasn’t collateral damage,” Aparicio said. “All the dead and detained had heavy weapons and tactical equipment such as bulletproof vests.”
“They are all members of criminal groups,” he said.
A few hours after the first battle, he said, a second clash occurred in Las Varas when 20 more gunmen arrived as backup. Aparicio said that about 300 security forces are now in the area.
Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.