Mexico to send more police to drug war epicenter

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexico is sending 2,000 elite police to try to smother a fresh surge in drug killings on the U.S. border as the army intensifies its operations, denying it plans to withdraw troops.

Hundreds of troops in combat gear fanned out from their barracks on Wednesday in Ciudad Juarez, where 2,650 people died in narco violence last year, setting up checkpoints and flying military aircraft over the city.

Drug killings in the manufacturing city across from El Paso, Texas have reached up to 16 a day since the start of the year as drug gangs fight over the city’s lucrative pool of addicts and its smuggling routes deep into Texas.

The city has become one of the world’s most violent and a major challenge for President Felipe Calderon, who sent 10,000 soldiers and federal police to Ciudad Juarez in March 2009 in hopes of crushing the drug trade.

Residents blame the army for provoking the jump in killings, which have grown steadily following a brief lull when the troops arrived. Mexican media and opposition politicians say a military withdrawal from Ciudad Juarez is imminent.

“The soldiers are not leaving. On the contrary, we are redoubling patrols with 100 percent of our personnel. There will be soldiers everywhere,” said army spokesman Enrique Torres in Ciudad Juarez.

Calderon’s strategy in the border city, the bloodiest front in his war against drug cartels, is stumbling as rights groups accuse soldiers and police of rounding up innocent residents in violent house raids and beating confessions out of suspects.

Calderon, who has sent soldiers across Mexico to fight drug cartels, has said the unprecedented military presence in Ciudad Juarez is only temporary and soldiers will be replaced by newly trained police.

But a spokesperson for the interior ministry in Mexico City said the army would stay until at least the end of March.

Public Security Minister Genaro Garcia Luna told the Televisa TV network on Wednesday the 2,000 federal police reinforcements would arrive over the next few days.

Calderon’s strategy has scored major recent victories with the capture of a key Tijuana drug gang leader on Tuesday and the killing of the head of the powerful Beltran Leyva cartel in western Mexico late last year.

But U.S. officials, investors and ordinary Mexicans are concerned the violence is overwhelming the army. More than 17,000 people have died in drug violence in Mexico over the past three years and killings are escalating.

Additional reporting by Cyntia Barrera Diaz and Anahi Rama; editing by Todd Eastham