CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico – Hundreds of people blocked bridges to the United States in three border cities Tuesday, demanding the army leave in another challenge for the Mexican government as it struggles to quell escalating drug violence.
The protests in Ciudad Juarez blocked traffic for about two hours across three bridges connecting the city to El Paso, Texas. Similar protests broke out on bridges in the border cities of Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa. Demonstrators blocked city hall and a main avenue in the northern industrial city of Monterrey and roads in the Gulf state of Veracruz.
It was the largest display of discontent against the army’s role in an anti-drug crackdown since President Felipe Calderon began deploying soldiers across the country two years ago to fight cartels. About 45,000 soldiers are now spread out across Mexico.
Government and army officials claimed that drug cartels organized similar protests in Monterrey earlier this month to undermine the crackdown. Federal officials had no immediate comment on Tuesday’s protests.
Human rights activists say there are legitimate complaints about abuses by soldiers, including cases in which patrols allegedly opened fire on civilians at military checkpoints. But they say it is unclear who has been behind the demonstrations.
Calderon’s offensive was initially widely popular among Mexicans hopeful for an end to relentless shootings, kidnappings and killings. But drug violence has only surged since then, with drug gangs beheading rivals and attacking police nearly every day. More than 6,000 people were killed in drug violence last year.
Border towns have been transformed by the crackdown, with soldiers in ski masks regularly rumbling down the streets in large convoys.
About 30 people, mostly women and children, blocked the Paso del Norte bridge leading from Ciudad Juarez to downtown El Paso. They shouted “Soldiers, get out!” as they stood in front of about 20 troops in green army pickup trucks. One person held a sign reading, “Get out of Juarez, thieving abusive soldiers.”
Three police officers – including the operations director of the city police – were shot to death by unidentified assailants in Ciudad Juarez on Tuesday on a street near the U.S. consulate. Another officer was wounded.