In one of the most violent eruptions in the ongoing border drug war, suspected traffickers clashed on the streets of Tijuana early Saturday morning in a wild and bloody shootout that left 13 people dead and eight others injured in a series of moving gun battles.
Gunmen began firing on each other with rifles and automatic weapons in a light industrial area east of the city, according to authorities, leaving a trail of corpses, spent shell casings and bullet-riddled vehicles across Tijuana as the triggermen gave chase to one another.
A security guard patrolling the parking lot of a convenience store near the initial confrontation on Boulevard Insurgentes, a major thoroughfare, said the gun battle there raged for at least 10 minutes.
The petrified watchman said he hit the pavement and didn’t rise until long after the shooting had stopped. When it was over, he said, he saw abandoned vehicles, scattered weapons, broken glass, a blood-soaked bulletproof vest and several corpses, including one with its head nearly blown off.
It sounded like a war, he said. “I thank God that I’m OK.”
The shootout is just the latest in a spasm of drug-related violence that has gripped the border town this year. In the first four months of 2008, Tijuana has seen dozens of kidnappings, assaults and homicides, including children gunned down in the mayhem.
The violence has had a major economic effect on the city’s tourism business and underscores the larger drug problem facing the Mexican government.
The motive for Saturday’s bloodshed was unclear. Police said it could have been a falling-out between factions of the Arellano Felix narcotics cartel, which has long controlled the drug trade in the city. Or it could be another cartel trying to move in on its turf.
Some speculate that the killings may have been revenge by traffickers against suspected informants.
Still, experts said the recent surge in violence undoubtedly is linked to a major offensive by authorities against organized-crime drug traffickers, an operation that has strained delicate alliances between traffickers who had previously cooperated with one another in the lucrative narcotics trade.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon, in cooperation with state and local authorities, has sent hundreds of soldiers and federal police to Tijuana and other trafficking hot spots this year.
Results have been mixed. Although the operation has resulted in several high-profile arrests and seizures of drugs and weapons caches, organized crime has responded with ferocity to intimidate informants and police and to punish rivals suspected of betraying them.
“They are under pressure and turning on each other,” said Agustin Perez Aguilar, spokesman for the public safety department of Baja California state. “We hope we have a lot more events” like Saturday’s.
Some residents and tourists may not agree. The violence has terrorized Tijuana and other cities, where cartel hit men have all but abandoned traditional codes of honor, with brazen daylight attacks and assassinations of children.
In January, gunmen stormed the home of Tijuana Deputy Police Chief Margarito Saldana Rivera, killing him, his wife and two daughters, the youngest age 12. A couple and their 3-year-old son were slain the same week in what was believed to have been a case of mistaken identity.
City Hall was evacuated earlier this year because of a bomb threat.
Public shootouts have sent pedestrians scrambling for cover and pinned residents in their homes for hours, and tourism has plunged as fearful U.S. day trippers steer clear of the city’s shops, restaurants and night life.
The situation in Tijuana has grown particularly volatile after a Mexican general last week publicly identified about three dozen local, state and federal law enforcement officers who he alleges are in league with organized crime.
Gen. Sergio Aponte Polito made the claims in an open letter to the Tijuana daily newspaper Frontera. The explosive charges have caused such a rift between various levels of law enforcement that Calderon ordered Aponte, the Baja state governor, its attorney general and its secretary of public safety to fly to the capital yesterday to meet with the federal secretary of Defense and secretary of Federal Public Security, according to Perez.
“They were called by Calderon to settle their differences,” Perez said at a news conference.
The prospect of infighting among the cartels and within law enforcement has some observers worried about the unintended consequences of the recent crackdown and whether the violence it has unleashed can now be contained.
Still, Calderon’s efforts have generally been popular with the Mexican public. And they reflect a heightened level of commitment by the federal government to neutralize criminals and weed out corrupt public officials and police, said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego.
“Even though it’s bloody, even though it’s costly, people like the fact that the government’s standing up,” Shirk said.
After Saturday’s shootouts, law enforcement officials said they recovered 54 weapons, 21 vehicles, 45 magazines of heavy-caliber ammunition and 1,500 spent shells at five locations around Tijuana.
A resident who lives near the site of the initial confrontation on Boulevard Insurgentes said the ground appeared to be paved with spent shells after the shooting ended.
Surveying the carnage after it was all over, he said he was struck by how young and heavily armed some of the victims were. He said one fallen gunman had a revolver in each hand, an AK-47 slung over his shoulder and an AR-15 rifle at his side.
“He was very well-armed, but it didn’t save him,” the man said. “There were just too many attackers.”
Dickerson reported from Mexico City, Marosi from Tijuana. Times staff writer Reed Johnson contributed to this report from Mexico City.