TIJUANA, Mexico – 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 gunbattles.
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 chased 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 gunbattle there raged for at least 10 minutes.
The petrified watchman said he hit the pavement and did not get up 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 blown nearly off.
It sounded like “a war,” he said. “I thank God that I’m OK.”
The shootout is the latest in a spasm of drug-related violence that has gripped the border town this year. In the first four months of 2008 alone, Tijuana has seen dozens of kidnappings, assaults and homicides, including children gunned down in the mayhem. The violence has had a major economic impact on this town and underscores the larger drug problem facing the Mexican government.
The motive for Saturday’s bloodshed is 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 this 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 snitches.
Experts said the recent spike 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 that had previously cooperated in the 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. While the operation has resulted in several high-profile arrests and seizures of caches of drugs and weapons, organized crime has responded with unprecedented ferocity to intimidate informants and police and to punish rivals they suspect of betrayal.