msnbc.com news services
updated 2/9/2009 10:26:30 AM ET 2009-02-09T15:26:30

More than 200 American citizens have been killed since 2004 in Mexico's escalating wave of violence, amounting to the highest number of unnatural deaths in any foreign country outside military combat zones, according to the U.S. State Department.

The deaths included a 22-year-old Houston man and his 16-year-old friend who were hauled out of a minivan and shot execution style. They also included a 65-year-old nurse from Brownsville found floating in the Rio Grande after visiting a Mexican beauty salon and a retiree stabbed to death while camping on a Baja beach, reported the Houston Chronicle in a story published Sunday, which examined hundreds of records related to the deaths.

The State Department tracks most American homicides abroad but releases few details about the deaths. Most, however, occurred in border cities, including Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and Nuevo Laredo, where violence has spiked with drug cartel feuds in recent years.

The Chronicle analysis showed some American homicide victims were involved in organized crime. At least two dozen American victims were labeled as cartel hitmen, drug dealers, smugglers or gang members. Others were drug users or wanted for crimes in the United States.

But in at least 70 other cases, the Americans were killed in Mexico while there on seemingly innocent business: visiting family, vacationing or living and working there.

Mexican Congressman Juan Francisco Rivera Bedoya of Nuevo Leon said he believes most American victims get killed after crossing the border for illegal activities or venturing into unsafe areas.

"Tourists visiting cathedrals, museums and other cultural centers are not at risk," he said.

'Travel alerts' for border communities
The State Department last year issued "travel alerts" for several border communities, warning that dozens of U.S. citizens had been kidnapped or killed in Tijuana, though it gave no details.

"We're not trying to scare anybody off, but we sure as heck want people to be aware of the dangerous conditions that they might encounter in certain parts of the country," said former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza in an interview before he left his post.

Meanwhile, Mexico said over the weekend that 100 more federal police officers had been assigned to the capital's airport following a series of assaults on travelers who exchanged money.

Five of the victims have been foreigners, including a French scientist who was killed.

Federal Police official Brig. Gen. Alfredo Fregoso said the reinforcement brings to 500 the number of federal officers patrolling the airport.

Prosecutors say at least 18 people who were recently robbed outside the airport were apparently followed after exchanging money inside.

The French scientist was shot in the head last month after assailants intercepted his car and stole $6,336.

Fregoso's announcement Saturday came a day after a Colombian man became the 18th reported victim.

Gruesome deaths
Across Mexico, more than 5,000 people were killed last year, authorities report. Some of the deaths of police and other public officials have been public and gruesome, with bodies posed in public places.

The Chronicle found that among the American deaths, at least 40 were killed and had their bodies dumped in the methods favored by drug cartels.

Few of the killers are caught.

Only about 20 percent of homicides in Mexico result in arrests, the Chronicle found in its analysis of data from the Citizens' Safety Institute. The Mexico City-based nonprofit surveys prosecutors across Mexico.

Records from the prosecutor in Baja California Norte, home to Tijuana, show none of the cases from 2004 to 2006 have been closed. More than 90 Americans have been killed in the state south of San Diego since 2003.

More on Mexico

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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