Gunmen pulled 21 people from their beds early Thursday in a placid farm community just north of here, herded them onto a patio and opened fire, killing 18 in what authorities describe as the deadliest crime in Baja California history.
Eight children--including youngsters ages 1, 2 and 4--were among the dead. One teenager who hid under a bed escaped the carnage. Authorities said the 15-year-old girl, whom they plan to interview for clues to the killers, was in shock after the massacre.
Dozens of Mexican police officers and soldiers swarmed the bloody crime scene to begin what officials vowed would be a massive investigation.
Drugs are a "main line" of inquiry into the possible motive, authorities said at afternoon press conferences. But they denied early reports suggesting that they had concluded the owner of the farm where the killings took place was linked to marijuana production for Tijuana's notorious Arellano Felix drug cartel.
Even authorities used to dealing with the bloody drug war shootouts that have become more frequent in the northern Baja region expressed shock and disgust over the carnage. "This is something truly despicable. It's something that has to shock us," said Jose Luis Chavez Garcia, the top federal prosecutor for the region.
"I can't describe how horrible this crime was--I can't find the words," said Alberto Aviles, a spokesman for the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles. "The people who did this have no respect for human life, for women or children or people who cannot defend themselves. This was done in cold blood."
The attack took place at 4:30 a.m. in El Sauzal, a small farm town on the outskirts of Ensenada about 60 miles south of the U.S. border, in a region famous for its coastal resorts and wineries.
The victims, all believed to be related, lived in a cluster of three country houses bordered by an expanse of stables, corrals and a hilly open field. The home where the murders took place belonged to Fermin Castro, 38, who was seriously wounded in the attack. Castro had made a name for himself by raising horses and promoting rodeos in Baja.
Armed with AK-47 assault weapons, the assailants raided each of the three houses and roused the families from their sleep, leading them to Castro's patio, ordering them to lie face-down, and shooting the victims execution-style, authorities said. Both the type of weapons and the method of execution suggested links to organized crime, investigators said.
Neighbors Are Stunned, Frightened
The victims were found lying on the patio, clad in pajamas or underwear, police said.
One television reporter said he saw the corpse of a woman, still clutching her baby in her arms. Hundreds of spent shell casings and bullets were scattered nearby.
The three wounded survivors--Castro, a 12-year-old and a third victim of unknown age--were all said to be in grave condition.
A few neighbors heard the gunfire but said they assumed at the time that it was nothing more than fireworks set off as part of the festivities for Mexican Independence Day on Wednesday.
Once neighbors realized what had happened, they were stunned. "I don't believe it. It can't be," said Jose Luis Torres, a neighbor who is a cousin to several of the victims.
Another neighbor said the tragedy has both terrified and sickened the community. "I think everyone's afraid now," said the woman, who did not want to be identified. "It's not just fear, it's sadness. Why the children?"
At the grassy hillside site hours later, horses chomped peacefully on feed.
Nearby, however, a thick layer of dried blood lay on the patio's concrete floor. Patio chairs were overturned, indicating a struggle not far from the children's toys that dotted the yard. Inside, beds were unmade, the sheets and blankets pulled aside, according to TV reports.
The attorney general for the northern part of Baja California, Marco Antonio de la Fuente Villarreal, shied away from speculating on a motive during a Thursday afternoon news conference.
"We cannot say 100% that it was an aspect of drug trafficking or for some other motive. . . . Information is still lacking," he said.
Authorities acknowledged, however, that drugs would be a main focus in their investigation.
Suspicions immediately focused on the Arellano Felix cartel.
Early reports out of Mexico centered on the possibility that Castro oversaw marijuana production in the area for the cartel.
Authorities later denied having made such claims, refusing to comment on Castro's possible involvement with the cartel. But Chavez, the prosecutor, did confirm that Castro had previously been the subject of a federal investigation related to his alleged connections to organized crime.
Based in Tijuana, the Arellano Felix cartel has become notorious as Mexico's bloodiest and most brutal drug empire.
Authorities say the cartel is headed by four Arellano brothers from Tijuana, all of whom have been in hiding since the 1993 assassination of a Roman Catholic cardinal at the Guadalajara airport. The cardinal is thought to have been mistakenly shot by an Arellano hit man who was trying to gun down one of the cartel's drug rivals.
Members of the cartel have also been blamed for the murders of scores of Mexican law enforcement officers.
On Thursday, TV Azteca, a Mexican network, reported that "the main hypothesis [in the early morning massacre] is that they were killed because of information they had about the Arellano Felix family."
Possible Breach of 'Unwritten Code'
If Thursday's slayings were related to drug trafficking, they would represent a breach of an "unwritten code" among the drug cartels that calls for sparing the lives of children, said Aviles at the consulate.
San Diego Police Sgt. Manuel Rodriguez, who travels routinely to Baja as the department's chief liaison to Mexico, agreed.
"If you look at history, that doesn't normally happen. If a child is shot [by a cartel], it's usually an accident," he said. "That's a big departure from what they normally do."
Rodriguez said San Diego police stand ready to offer forensic assistance to Mexican authorities who may lack the equipment to analyze such a large volume of evidence.
"That would probably be the extent of our involvement, unless for some reason, whatever evidence they gather leads to the U.S.," he said. "Right now, we're kind of in the dark."
Even as the murder investigation intensifies, Mexican authorities said they will seek to ease any concerns over safety that local residents and tourists may have.
Ensenada has gained increasing popularity in recent years as a weekend getaway destination for Southern Californians. There is no commercial airport here, but approximately 800 people take a cruise ship into town from San Pedro each weekend, and thousands more drive down the coast.
Aviles said he is "very concerned" that the massacre will deter people from heading to Ensenada. "I believe that there's going to be some negative effect, yes," he said.
But he added that "we can assure [tourists] that the situation is under control there, and there is no eruption of violence. The place is secure."
Times staff writers Ann-Marie O'Connor in Los Angeles and James F. Smith in Mexico City contributed to this story.