Three people connected to the U.S. Consulate in Mexico’s deadliest city, Ciudad Juarez, were shot to death by men who intercepted their cars as they returned from a child’s birthday party, officials said Sunday. Two of the dead, an American couple, were discovered slain in their vehicle, their uninjured baby crying in the back seat. President Obama on Sunday expressed outrage at the drive-by slayings. The three victims were killed in broad daylight Saturday near the city’s border with El Paso.
Ciudad Juarez, a key entry point for drugs into the U.S., has seen a staggering increase in bloodshed as narcotics gangs battle for control of smuggling routes, turf and market share. Mexico’s raging drug war has claimed thousands of lives, including those of some Americans. But this appears to be the first time in recent years that Mexican drug traffickers have attacked U.S. diplomatic personnel and their families.
FOR THE RECORD:
A subheadline on an earlier version of this article said a U.S. Consulate worker and his wife had been killed. It should have said a U.S. Consulate worker and her husband had been killed.
In response to the escalating violence, the State Department on Sunday told employees they could send family members and other dependents home to the U.S. from six northern Mexican cities where Washington maintains consulates. It also updated its existing travel warnings, cautioning Americans about traveling to or within northern Mexican states and strongly cautioning American youth about spending their spring break in Mexico.
The dead couple were identified by Mexican authorities as Lesley A. Enriquez, 35, an employee of the consulate, and her husband, Arthur H. Redelfs, 34. Redelfs was a detention officer with the El Paso County Jail, a relative told the Associated Press. Neither the relative nor U.S. officials in Washington were able to specify Enriquez’s job at the consulate.
The third person killed was identified as the husband of a Mexican employee of the consulate. He was traveling with two children, both of whom were injured, according to the state prosecutor’s office in Ciudad Juarez.
A security official in Ciudad Juarez said the victims were obviously targeted but that the motive was still under investigation.
“The information we have indicates they were specific targets, but the motives behind the attack are not yet known,” said the official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name.
Later Sunday, the state prosecutor’s office said it was working with U.S. federal agents and believed the attackers might belong to one of two drug gangs, the Aztecs or the Linea, both fighting for control of parts of Ciudad Juarez.
The mayor of Ciudad Juarez said the gathering the victims had attended was a child’s birthday party. U.S. State Department spokesman Fred Lash said the party was attended by a large number of officials connected with the consulate.
“A lot of the people were there and they were all coming home when this happened,” Lash said.
Witnesses said gunmen apparently tailed Enriquez and Redelfs for several blocks before opening fire. Enriquez was struck in the head and Redelfs in the neck and arm, the prosecutor’s office said, and the car, bearing Texas license plates, drifted for some yards before crashing near the Santa Fe international bridge that links Juarez with El Paso.
When police approached, they first heard the cries, then found the child in the back seat. She was estimated to be several months old and was not injured. Investigators found spent 9-millimeter bullet casings, suggesting the attackers used high-caliber handguns to kill the parents.
At almost the same time, the husband of another consulate employee, identified by the prosecutor’s office as Jorge Alberto Salcido, 37, traveling in a separate car, was cut off by gunmen in sport utility vehicles.
They shot him to death and injured two children with him, ages 4 and 7, the office said.
U.S. officials in Washington said a fourth adult, traveling in Salcido’s car, was also injured. It was not clear if that person was Salcido’s wife, who works at the consulate, or someone else.
In a statement Sunday, the White House said Obama “shares in the outrage of the Mexican people at the murders of thousands in Ciudad Juarez and elsewhere in Mexico.”
Obama said the U.S. would “continue to work with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and his government to break the power of the drug trafficking organizations that operate in Mexico and far too often target and kill the innocent. This is a responsibility we must shoulder together.”
The Mexican government also said it was “profoundly sorrowed” by the slayings but pledged to press ahead with its military-led offensive against drug cartels. Calderon expressed “indignation and condemnation” and promised to bring the killers to justice.
This was a particularly deadly weekend in Mexico. Thirteen people were killed around the popular beach resort of Acapulco, and 20 others died in fighting elsewhere in the state of Guerrero.
Eight people were slain at a birthday party for a farmer in the drug-producing state of Sinaloa.
In recent months, the most high-profile slaying of an American took place on New Year’s Eve, when an official from El Monte, Calif., was killed with five other men when they were kidnapped from a bar in the Durango state city of Gomez Palacio. The official, popular educator Bobby Salcedo, was in Mexico visiting his wife’s relatives for the holidays.
Bloodshed in Ciudad Juarez has surged as the Juarez drug cartel, which traditionally controlled the area, battles a takeover attempt by traffickers loyal to Sinaloa-based kingpin Joaquin Guzman. Calderon traveled to the city twice last month to promise to restore safety.
But beleaguered citizens say their complaints fall on deaf ears and they live in terror.
Calderon’s government has been especially sensitive to the damage that bloodshed has done to his country’s image and at times seeks to downplay the extent of the violence. A Foreign Ministry official said the decision to authorize removal of U.S. government dependents was “worrisome.”
Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz said he understood the U.S. fears prompting the decision.
But he said the consulate, which had to close briefly because of a bomb threat, has strong security. “It is one of the most heavily guarded places in the city,” Reyes told CNN’s Spanish-language service.
In Washington, the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs on Sunday reiterated a travel warning for Americans going to Mexico and those living there.
“Recent violent attacks have prompted the U.S. Embassy to urge U.S. citizens to delay unnecessary travel to parts of Durango, Coahuila and Chihuahua states . . . and advise U.S. citizens residing or traveling in those areas to exercise extreme caution,” the warning said.
The warning, in effect until April 12, also authorized the departure of U.S. dependents of government consular officials in border cities such as Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana and Nuevo Laredo. The major difference between this warning and one Feb. 22 was the authorization for dependents to leave Mexico.
“Violence in the country has increased,” the warning stated. “It is imperative that U.S. citizens understand the risks in Mexico [and] how best to avoid dangerous situations.”
The warning added: “The situation in northern Mexico remains fluid; the location and timing of future armed engagements cannot be predicted.”
A special correspondent in Ciudad Juarez contributed to this report.