The killings last month in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez of two U.S. citizens, including an employee at the city’s U.S. Consulate, along with the slaying of an Arizona rancher, have fueled concerns among U.S. officials that Americans are becoming fair game for Mexican drug gangs seeking control of smuggling routes into the United States.
For more than two years, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials have been warning that the dramatic rise in violence along the southwestern border could eventually target U.S. citizens and spread into this country. The violence posed what the officials called a “serious threat” to law enforcement officers, first responders and residents along the 1,951-mile border.
The numbers bear out those concerns, according to the State Department: 79 U.S. citizens were killed last year in Mexico, up from 35 in 2007. In Juarez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, 23 Americans were killed in 2009, compared with two in 2007.
In response, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and Sen. John McCain, both Republicans, have called on the Department of Homeland Security to deploy the National Guard along the Arizona border. Mrs. Brewer said the rising violence showed the “abject failure of the U.S. Congress and President Obama to adequately provide public safety along our national border with Mexico.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry also has put into play a “spillover violence contingency plan” to address attacks on American citizens in Mexico. The plan increases border surveillance; intelligence sharing; and ground, air and maritime patrols.
A day before the March 13 Juarez killings, Mr. Perry unsuccessfully sought help from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to use unmanned Predator drone aircraft and 1,000 additional soldiers for missions on the Mexican border. He said there was a disparity in the amount of federal resources allotted to Texas for border security.
The White House said Mr. Obama was “deeply saddened and outraged” by the killings and had pledged to “continue to work with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and his government to break the power of the drug-trafficking organizations that operate in Mexico and far too often target and kill the innocent.”
Mr. Krentz, 58, a longtime Douglas, Ariz., rancher, was killed Saturday. He was found by a Cochise County Sheriff’s Department helicopter, slumped over his Polaris all-terrain vehicle on his 34,000-acre ranch. His dog also was shot and was critically wounded. The animal was euthanized on Sunday.
Arizona authorities said they think Mr. Krentz was shot by an illegal immigrant. Police dogs followed the tracks of the suspected killer back into Mexico, about 20 miles south. Authorities think the shooter was either a drug cartel scout or a member of a known gang of border thieves that has terrorized the area’s remote ranches.
“It’s a big deal. It’s something that could be a turning point here,” said Cochise County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Carol Capas. “People in the area are on heightened alert. They’re grief-stricken, saddened, and they’re extremely angry.”
Two years ago, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, said in a report that border gangs were becoming increasingly ruthless and had begun targeting rivals and federal, state and local police. ICE said the violence had risen dramatically as part of “an unprecedented surge.”
Last year, the Justice Department identified more than 200 U.S. cities in which Mexican drug cartels “maintain drug distribution networks or supply drugs to distributors”–up from 100 three years earlier.
The Mexican Embassy in Washington condemned the killings but did not respond to a follow-up request for comment about whether the Americans had been targeted intentionally. In a statement, it said the Mexican government would “work closely” with its U.S. counterparts “to track down those responsible for these killings so justice can be served.”
On March 14, the State Department issued its strongest travel warning to date for U.S. citizens planning on traveling to Mexico. The department also approved the departure of the dependents of U.S. personnel from consulates in the northern Mexican border cities of Tijuana, Nogales, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Monterey and Matamoros.
It warned that the cartels are using automatic weapons and grenades, that “large firefights” have taken place in towns and cities across Mexico and that public shootouts have taken place during daylight hours in shopping centers and other public venues.
The department said drug criminals have followed and harassed U.S. citizens traveling in their vehicles, that travelers on major highways have been targeted for robbery and violence and that others have been caught in incidents of gunfire between criminals and Mexican law enforcement.
Since January 2008, nearly 5,000 homicides have been committed in Ciudad Juarez alone, making it one of the most violent cities in the world. The bodies of some of those killed have been dumped in schoolyards and other public venues. Many of the victims were ambushed. Others were killed with grenades and AK-47 assault rifles.
Still others have been decapitated, their bodies hung from bridges–along with banners with warning messages from the cartels.
Mr. Calderon declared war against the Mexican cartels in 2006 and has committed more than 40,000 Mexican soldiers to the fight, although the violence continues to escalate. To date, the cartels in Mexico have killed more than 17,000 people.