CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico Gunmen brought terror to two towns in northern Mexico, killing at least 39 people, police said Friday, as the country struggles to tackle the scourge of powerful and violent drug cartels.
In Chihuahua, the capital of northern Chihuahua state, more than 30 armed men stormed a drug rehabilitation centre overnight, killing 19 people and wounding four others.
Meanwhile, an unknown number of gunmen carried out a series of armed attacks and executions across the town of Madero, in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, police said.
In Chihuahua, the gunmen arrived in six trucks around midnight on Thursday and stormed the second floor of the Templo Cristiano Fe y Vida (Christian Faith and Life Temple).
Firing large-caliber weapons at patients and employees, they killed 14 immediately and then fatally shot another five people before depositing a threatening message and fleeing.
The raid lasted little more than 10 minutes, according to residents living next to the centre.
Shortly afterward, police and soldiers surrounded the area searching in vain for the perpetrators, and ambulances ferried the wounded, including four reportedly in serious condition, to local hospitals.
Chihuahua has long been the scene of gruesome trafficking-related violence and authorities say rehab centres are often targeted because of small-scale drug dealing or the presence of individuals seeking refuge from violence or rival gangs.
In September 2009, two similar attacks in nearby Ciudad Juarez left a total of 28 dead.
Police said the rehab centre targeted overnight may have housed members of the “Los Mexicles” gang linked to the Sinaloa cartel, which is warring with “Los Aztecos,” affiliated with the Juarez cartel.
In Madero, a gang of gunmen killed scores of people in a series of armed confrontations and shootings in at least five different locations in the city.
So far, “20 bodies have been found in different parts of the city,” a federal police officer told AFP.
The attacks reportedly began Thursday, with confrontations between police and a group of gunmen moving around the city in vans.
Authorities then received reports Friday that bodies had been discovered on a local beach and in other locations throughout the town.
There was no immediate information linking the incident to drug violence, but Tamaulipas has been caught in the crosshairs of a bloody confrontation between the Gulf cartel and their former allies, Los Zetas, which was formed by former elite military personnel.
Along with the death toll, the regions violence is unique for the level of cruelty that continues to befall victims of the drug cartels, which have been terrorizing residents and officials alike with beheadings, mutilation and depraved methods of torture all part of the daily record.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon condemned the violence in Chihuahua and expressed his condolences to the families of the victims.
“These are outrageous acts that reinforce the conviction of the need to use all out forces to fight criminal groups engaged in such acts of barbarism,” Calderon said in a statement from Johannesburg, where he was attending the start of the World Cup.
Some 23,000 people have died in surging, drug-related violence following the launch of a military clampdown on organised crime, involving some 50,000 troops, at the end of 2006.
The conservative president has staked his term in office on tackling the drug cartels, deploying soldiers to the worst-affected parts of the country to do the job of often-corrupt police.
The profitable trade in illegal drugs has allowed cartels to arm themselves with the latest and most deadly weapons available.
Those weapons often come from the United States, and Calderon last month urged US lawmakers to strengthen gun laws, warning that over 90 per cent of the guns used by drug traffickers in Mexico come from north of the border.
“Believe me, many of these guns are not going to honest American hands. Instead thousands are ending up in the hands of criminals,” he said.
Calderon has scored some victories, including the arrest of top cartel leader Jose Antonio Medina, dubbed the “King of Heroin” and the death of Arturo Beltran Leyva, known as the “chief of chiefs.”
But he also faces growing resentment from residents in the worst-affected parts of Mexico, who are angry at his failure to stop the violence and accuse the troops he has deployed of committing abuses.