CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico – A drug gang kidnapped and killed six people along the U.S.-Mexican border region, setting off gunbattles with soldiers that left 15 others dead.
The hours-long skirmishes around the town of Ciudad Ahumada on Tuesday are part of a wave of drug violence that has engulfed parts of Mexico — and has even spilled across the border — as the army confronts savage narcotics cartels that are flush with drug money and guns from the U.S.
President Felipe Calderon says that more than 6,000 people died last year in drug-related violence, and U.S. authorities have reported a spike in killings, kidnappings and home invasions linked to the cartels — some of it in cities far from the border, such as Phoenix and Atlanta.
Tuesday’s bloodshed began when gunmen kidnapped nine suspected members of a rival drug gang in Villa Ahumada and executed six of them along the PanAmerican Highway outside of the town, said Enrique Torres, spokesman for a joint military-police operation in Chihuahua state. Villa Ahumada is 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of the border city of El Paso, Texas.
Assailants later released three of the men, although their whereabouts were not immediately known, Torres said.
Soldiers later caught up with the gunmen and a series of shootouts ensued, leaving 14 alleged gunmen and one soldier dead Tuesday, Torres said. Another soldier was wounded.
Villa Ahumada, a town of 1,500 people, was virtually taken over by drug gangs last year when attackers killed two consecutive police chiefs and two officers. The rest of the 20-member force resigned in fear, forcing the Mexican military to take over for months until the town was able to recruit new officers.
The town’s mayor, Fidel Chavez, fled to the state capital for safety.
Also Tuesday, Tijuana city police said emergency officials responding to a report of a car on fire found a sport utility vehicle engulfed in flames and two charred bodies inside.
And in Tepotzotlan, a small town outside Mexico City, two heads in coolers were found inside a car, according to an official with the Mexico state prosecutor’s office who was not authorized to give her name. The heads were accompanied by a message threatening the municipal police chief. Decapitations have become commonplace in Mexico’s drug violence.
In other violence late Monday, armed men forced their way into a prison in Torreon, then killed three prisoners by beating them and setting them on fire in a bathroom. The assailants also freed nine inmates before escaping, state prosecutors said in a statement Tuesday.
Fighting between rival gangs left another two inmates dead Tuesday at an overcrowded prison in central Mexico, said Carlos Gil Abarca, a spokesman for the prevention and rehabilitation office of the Mexico state government.