May 3, 2008

Mexico: Cartels Intensify Turf War in Tijuana


TIJUANA, Mexico -- 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, the most violent in Mexico.

Even jaded residents feel caught in the crossfire between drug smugglers and federal troops. 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 Saturday, when rival gang members killed 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, 28, a 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 their enemies 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 members trapped for hours.

Mexico's drug cartels have long divided the border; each controls key cities. But the government has arrested or killed many of the gangs' top leaders over the past decade, creating a power vacuum and throwing lucrative drug routes up for the taking.

President Felipe Calderon, who took of fice 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. That sparked even more violence from the gangs, who now behead their rivals and recruit soldiers by advertising on billboards.

Calderon admits that the crackdown has yet to reduce violence, saying it will take years to seize back control of large parts of the country 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 residents at risk as well.

A shootout in January forced the evacuation of a Tijuana preschool. Live television footage showed children fleeing ricocheting bullets. The border city's once-boisterous tourist discos and shops are quiet.

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, who was too terrified of the cartels to give his name. "There is no peace -- not during the day, not at night."

Originally published by ELLIOT SPAGAT Associated Press.

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