Drug Cartels Battle Over Mexican Turf

Thirteen drug-related killings in three days are the latest evidence that a turf war is raging among narcotics-smuggling gangs following the arrests of high-level cartel leaders, U.S. and Mexican officials said Monday.

The violence also shows that new alliances are being struck between the drug cartels as they fight for control over transshipment points in the Pacific state of Sinaloa and drug export "platforms" along the U.S.-Mexico border such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez.

The drug violence has claimed 268 lives this year in Sinaloa alone, state Atty. Gen. Oscar Fidel Gonzalez said. The bodies of 64 victims have been found in Ciudad Juarez, and dozens more in Tijuana, Mexicali and Tecate in Baja California, Mexican officials said.

On Monday, police in Ciudad Juarez discovered the bodies of two men thought to be victims of organized crime. One man apparently had been tortured; his hands were bound, and his body was found wrapped in a blanket at the bottom of a canal. The other man was found in an abandoned car a few blocks away.

In Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa, a spectacular shootout on Saturday between rival gangs left eight dead, including 29-year-old Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes, brother of Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, head of the so-called Juarez cartel. On Sunday, the bodies of three more victims were discovered outside Culiacan, though no link has been established to the Saturday shootout.

The Culiacan firefight occurred as Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes and his entourage were emerging from a movie theater. The Pacific coast of Sinaloa, especially the port city of Mazatlan, is a major transshipment point for Colombian cocaine. Officials here described Carrillo Fuentes as a dealmaker for the Juarez syndicate.

Killed along with Carrillo Fuentes were his 18-year-old girlfriend Yovana Quevado Gastelum, and a Sinaloa state police commander, Juan Duran Mallorquin, who apparently was acting as a bodyguard. Pedro Perez Lopez, another apparent bodyguard and a former police commander who had survived a previous attack, was seriously wounded.

Police killed five of the assailants and arrested two others.

Mexican Atty. Gen. Rafael Macedo de la Concha told reporters Monday that several attackers may have been members of the so-called Zetas, an anti-drug squad formed by the Mexican military that later struck a deal to work for the Gulf cartel.

Zeta members are also suspected of being involved in the killing of Francisco J. Ortiz Franco, an editor of the crusading Zeta newspaper in Tijuana, on June 22.

U.S. law enforcement officials say the recent arrests of top leaders of the Tijuana, Gulf and Juarez cartels have spurred new gangs to jostle for control.

Others say major cartels have splintered into smaller cells that are battling one another. In recent months, the top ranks of the Tijuana cartel, once the most powerful in Mexico, have been devastated by arrests.

"This is an open fight for regional control," Macedo said of the power struggle.

Humberto Santillan Tabares, thought to be No. 2 in the Juarez-based cartel run by Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, was arrested in El Paso in January. Shortly thereafter, police discovered a grave in the backyard of one of Santillan's Ciudad Juarez houses that held the bodies of 12 slain people.

A U.S. law enforcement official credited the administration of Mexican President Vicente Fox and his formation of a new force, the Federal Investigative Agency, or AFI, with the successes.

He said AFI agents, who typically work with Mexican army units, have operated successfully in cities where traffickers are known to control the local police.

"Think of it like federal agents going into Capone-era Chicago with no local backup," the U.S. official said.