March 27, 2008 / 11:44 PM / 11 years ago

Mexico troops head to new U.S. border drug war zone

By Ignacio Alvarado

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico, March 27 (Reuters) - Mexico will send 1,500 soldiers and more than 400 federal police this week to quell raging violence just across the border from the U.S. city of El Paso, opening a new front in its war on drug gangs.

Following a leap in drug murders in the rundown city of Ciudad Juarez, the government said on Thursday the troop deployment over the next three days aims to crush cartels warring over smuggling routes into the United States.

Some 200 people have been killed in drug violence in Ciudad Juarez so far this year, a tenfold increase over the same period in 2007. Some of the victims were shot dead on busy avenues or tortured and strangled.

The new troops will join a low-profile contingent of around 500 soldiers already in Ciudad Juarez. They will take on a much more visible role, setting up road blocks and using heavy weaponry, helicopters and armored vehicles.

Interior Minister Juan Camilo Mourino said the increase in killings was "extraordinary" for an already notoriously violent city that has drawn worldwide attention in recent years for brutal murders of women.

President Felipe Calderon has sent out some 25,000 troops and federal police to fight drug gangs since taking office in December 2006, but Ciudad Juarez has so far had a very light military presence and analysts say the cartels took advantage.

"The challenge is to retake those areas that organized crime has claimed from society," Mourino said in a speech in Chihuahua state, home to Ciudad Juarez. "The government of President Calderon ... has decided to act with all the force of the Mexican state."

Police say Mexico’s most wanted man, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who leads the Sinaloa cartel of Pacific coast traffickers, has taken his fight for control of smuggling routes to this border city, targeting the once-mighty Juarez cartel.

The local cartel was weakened by the 1997 death of its leader Amado Carrillo Fuentes, and is also being attacked by eastern Mexico’s Gulf cartel.

Mexico’s drug turf wars have killed some 720 people so far this year and more than 2,500 people in 2007. (Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Kieran Murray)

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