Soldiers held Tijuana's main hospital in a virtual lockdown Tuesday as doctors treated eight drug traffickers wounded in running shootouts in this border city.
Even in Mexico's most violent city, jaded residents feel caught in the crossfire between drug smugglers and federal troops sent in to stop them. Hospitals, schools, and even taco-and-beer tourism are suddenly on the front lines of a raging turf war.
The latest bout of violence exploded on Saturday, with rival gang members killing each other all over Tijuana in simultaneous, pre-dawn attacks that left at least 13 dead.
Three days later, the Hospital General de Tijuana is surrounded by camouflaged federal troops with machine guns guarding locked gates. Outpatient services were halted, visits from family and friends were severely restricted and anyone without an emergency was told to go elsewhere.
"There isn't any other way," said Miguel Marin, a 28-year-old day laborer who missed the birth of his second daughter because he wasn't allowed to accompany his wife inside.
The soldiers guarding the hospital hope to prevent cartel gunmen from shooting their way in to rescue their colleagues — or finish them off. A year ago, a drug gang sent hit men into the hospital to rescue a wounded criminal, leaving three people dead and hundreds of patients and staff trapped for hours.
Cartels create power vacuum
Mexico's drug cartels had long divided the border, with each controlling key cities. But over the past decade Mexico has arrested or killed many of the gangs' top leaders, creating a power vacuum and throwing lucrative drug routes up for the taking.
President Felipe Calderon, who took office in December 2006, responded to the increased violence by deploying more than 24,000 soldiers and federal police to areas where the government had lost control. And that sparked even more violence from the gangs, who now behead their rivals and recruit soldiers with billboards.
Calderon admits the crackdown hasn't reduced violence yet, saying it will take years to seize back control of large parts of Mexico from the drug gangs. That leaves many people impatient.
"Other countries — even Iraq — have strategies against violence," said Dr. Ruben Corral, emerging from the hospital gates. "What is our Plan B? We don't know what the government's strategy is. Closing a hospital is not the answer."
But some officials say the strategy is working by turning traffickers against one another. Agustin Perez, a spokesman for the state public safety department, applauded Saturday's violence because traffickers killed one another but didn't threaten innocents.
"We hope there are more events" like it, he said.
That said, much of the violence has put ordinary citizens at risk as well.
'Constant state of anxiety'
A shootout in January forced the evacuation of a Tijuana preschool, with live television footage showing children fleeing ricocheting bullets. The border city's once-boisterous tourist discos and shops are quiet. The U.S. State Department recently warned the few Americans still visiting Tijuana to be especially careful.
At the hospital, doctors said they would be terrified as long as the drug suspects remained inside.
"We're in a constant state of anxiety," said one doctor, too terrified of the cartels to give his name. "There is no peace — not during the day, not at night."
Authorities have said little about who was behind Saturday's attacks. Rommel Moreno, the state attorney general, called them a "confrontation between gangs."
His office said ballistics tests showed links between the 60 guns and more than 1,500 spent bullet casings recovered, and previous high-profile crimes including the slayings of two Mexican government border agents last month, the ambush of a police officer in 2006 and an assassination attempt on the Playas de Rosarito police chief in December.
Most believe drug smugglers are battling for Tijuana after the city's dominant gang, the Arellano Felix cartel, was weakened six years ago by the killing of Ramon Arellano Felix and the arrest of his brother Benjamin. Others say factions within the Arellano Felix gang may be battling one another.
There are also allegations of government complicity in the drug trade, including a letter last week by a Mexican general naming dozens of officials he claimed were involved in organized crime. On Friday, Calderon called the general to a meeting with top state and federal officials.
But some say the violence might actually be an indication that such involvement is on the decline.
"There have been agreements between governments and drug traffickers for many years, but it seems there is no agreement now," said a plastic surgeon at Hospital General, who feared he'd be killed if he gave his name.
The violence has taken a large toll on doctors. At least one doctor is kidnapped each week for ransom, according to Tijuana doctors association president Jose Patino, and police are increasingly sending dangerous suspects for treatment at Hospital General.
"We wish we had a jail that had a hospital, but we don't," said Luis Humberto Lopez of the state attorney general's office.
Hundreds of doctors protested outside City Hall two weeks ago to demand an end to the kidnappings, and several doctors said Tuesday they were considering work stoppages to protest the dangerous criminals sent in for treatment.