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Drug-linked violence shocks Mexicans

Rosalba Padilla thought the first shots were nothing but construction in her quiet Tijuana neighborhood. Then she looked out her window and saw a sea of police — it was gunfire.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Rosalba Padilla thought the first shots were nothing but construction in her quiet, upper-class Tijuana neighborhood. It wasn't until she looked out her window and saw a sea of police that she realized the noise was gunfire.

Down the street, at the Preschool of Happiness, director Gloria Rico activated the school's alarm, prompting police to rush into the building, their guns drawn. Rico said the children were terrified by the chaos.

"Some were crying, one vomited and another wet his pants," she said Friday, adding that the police quickly put away their weapons and started evacuating the children.

The fighting erupted as federal agents raided a house near the U.S. border Thursday that authorities say sheltered gunmen linked to drug traffickers. Soldiers and police joined skirmishing that became a chaotic three-hour battle.

A federal agent and a gunman died and four officers were wounded in the latest outbreak of violence across the border from San Diego. Inside the house, authorities later found six slain kidnap victims.

The gunbattle and killings shocked even crime-weary Mexico. Many argued President Felipe Calderon should step up a yearlong crackdown on drug traffickers and other organized criminals that has sent soldiers into cities across the nation.

"What they need here is a heavy hand," Padilla said Friday while surveying blood-soaked streets and a bullet-ridden police truck. "The authorities need to be strong, very tough."

‘The gunfire was terrible’
Padilla spent the shootout hiding in the closet with her 19-year-old daughter. As they crouched in the dark, they started to think they wouldn't escape alive. Gunmen across the street shouted that they would drop bombs unless police backed off.

"The gunfire was terrible," she said. "It made the walls shake. I really didn't think we were going to get out."

Two blocks away, police were rushing children from a school vulnerable to gunfire from men holed up on the roof and top floors of the besieged safehouse.

Some of the children were carried by officers who crouched and pressed themselves up against the building to avoid the bullets. Other children ran out onto the sidewalk in groups under armed guard, their eyes wide with terror.

"I could hear the hail of gunfire, and it was really strong," Rico said. "I didn't feel fear until we had evacuated all 65 kids that were under my care, and then my legs started to shake."

Residents said soldiers, sent in to help overwhelmed police, swarmed rooftops. The gunmen refused to back down, shouting obscenities at the police and taunting them.

Four men were eventually arrested, including a state police investigator and another Tijuana police officer. They were taken to Mexico City, where they were being questioned by federal prosecutors. Another gunman was killed.

Inside, a gruesome scene
Once authorities entered the home, they found the bodies of the six men who were being held hostage. All had been shot in the head, although it was unclear if they were killed before or during the clash. Police were trying to determine if the victims were being held for ransom or were rival gang members.

Federal prosecutors said the gunmen belonged to Tijuana's Arellano-Felix drug cartel, a gang that has been weakened in recent years by the loss of leaders who have been arrested or killed.

Mexican Federal Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna said drug traffickers are using a tactic of "extreme violence" to intimidate their adversaries, society and authorities.

"We won't retreat and will continue using all the Mexican government's force against them," Garcia Luna said.

Thursday's violence was only the latest in a rash of recent killings.

On Jan. 10, gunmen shot and killed two federal agents and a civilian in the central state of Michoacan.

Two days earlier, two other federal agents were killed and three were injured during a shootout in Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, Texas.

A day before the Reynosa shootout, three suspected criminals were killed and 10 federal agents and soldiers wounded in a shootout in the town of Rio Bravo, across the border from Donna, Texas. Ten people, including three U.S. residents, suspected of having ties to the powerful Gulf cartel were arrested the next day.