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13 die in Mexico drug battles near U.S. border

Running gunbattles broke out between suspected drug traffickers on the streets of the border city of Tijuana on Saturday.
Image: Soldiers stand guard in front of the Tijuana city morgue
Soldiers stand guard in front of the Tijuana city morgue, where the bodies of drug gang members killed in a gun battle were being kept on Saturday. Jorge Duenes / Reuters
/ Source: news services

Gunbattles broke out between suspected drug traffickers who fired at each other while speeding down heavily populated streets of this violent border city early Saturday, killing 13 people and wounding nine.

Dead bodies scattered along a road marked one of the deadliest shootouts in Mexico's three-year-old drug warfare.

All of the dead were believed to be drug traffickers, possibly rival members of the same cartel who were trying to settle scores, said Rommel Moreno, the attorney general of Baja California state, where Tijuana is located.

Two of the dead were believed to be senior hit men for the Arellano Felix cartel and were identified by the large gold rings on their fingers. The rings carried the icon of Saint Death, a ghoulish figure that gangsters believe protects them, police said.

"Today shows we are facing a terrible war never seen before on the (U.S.-Mexico) border,"  Moreno said during a news conference.

Police cordoned off all the surrounding roads, forcing workers at a nearby maquiladora to walk through the crime scene to get to work.

"Another shootout," said a woman who gave her name only as Lisa. "There are just too many, we are so afraid."

Others suspects hurt in gang warfare   
Eight suspects and one federal police officer were injured, said Agustin Perez Aguilar, a spokesman for the state public safety department. The suspects are being held on suspicion of weapons possession among other possible charges.

Police recovered 21 vehicles, many with bullet holes or U.S. license plates; a total of 54 guns; and more than 1,500 spent shell casings at various points in the city where the battles broke out, Perez Aguilar said.

"Evidently this is a confrontation between gangs," Moreno told reporters.

At one point, the alleged traffickers fired at one another as their sport utility vehicles sped down a busy six-lane boulevard lined with restaurants, car repair shops, medical offices and strip malls.

Bullet holes could be seen in the walls of a factory building and on the perimeter wall of a housing complex along the road, but no bystander deaths were reported. It was not clear how long the gunbattles lasted.

A mall security guard who did not want to give his name for fear of reprisals said he heard hundreds of gunshots fired, some of which passed near him.

"I hit the ground," the guard said. When he got up again, he said he saw bullet holes in the wall behind him, a dead man lying in a pool of blood and 11 abandoned, bullet-ridden SUVs on the street.

Tijuana's deadly turf
The first shootout claimed seven victims. Three subsequent gunbattles — one outside a hospital — claimed five more, police said. The body of a man police believe to be the 13th victim turned up at a city hospital.

Tijuana, a sprawling metropolis just across the border from San Diego, California, is pervaded by frequent violence, much of it blamed on drug cartels battling for control of lucrative trafficking routes. The city is home to the Arellano-Felix drug cartel.

In January, eight people died in a gunbattle at a Tijuana safe-house apparently used by drug hit men to hold kidnapped rivals. In that confrontation, hit men holed up inside the house battled police and soldiers with automatic weapons for three hours.

Mexico's drug battles
Heavily armed federal police patrolled across Tijuana following the gunfight. Soldiers and police guarded the city's main hospital where the wounded were being treated to prevent any attempt by drug gangs to pull them out.

Baja California state police chief Daniel de la Rosa said fresh troops from Mexico City were arriving in Tijuana, which borders San Diego, California.

President Felipe Calderon has sent thousands of troops to Tijuana and Baja California state since taking office in December 2006. Some 25,000 soldiers and federal police are deployed to fight cartels in drug hot spots across Mexico.

The army in Tijuana said it was on high alert for reprisals against soldiers and federal police following the shootout and the ensuing arrests.

"The risk of attacks against our agents after an event like this is extremely high," said Lt. Col Julian Leyzaola, Tijuana's police chief.

The Arellano Felix gang was long the dominant drug-trafficking organization in Tijuana, smuggling drugs into California. Recently the group has been under attack from a rival gang from the Pacific state of Sinaloa, led by Mexico's most wanted man, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman.