Mexico blames Gulf cartel for surge in drug murders

MEXICO CITY, April 7 (Reuters) - A surge this year in drug murders along Mexico's border with the United States is being driven by the Gulf cartel of traffickers moving to seize rival gangs' smuggling routes, the government said on Monday.

Murders in the northern state of Chihuahua across the border from Texas have risen tenfold in the first three months of 2008, prompting the government to deploy 2,500 soldiers and federal police to the city of Ciudad Juarez since last week.

Public Security Minister Genaro Garcia said the spurt in violence in Chihuahua was the result of cartels breaking out of their traditional strongholds and seeking new smuggling routes to the United States.

"In the past it was assumed the Gulf cartel only operated in the Gulf (of Mexico) and the Pacific cartel in the Pacific. Today we have a fight between them over controlling drug smuggling territory," Garcia told a news conference.

Garcia said the success of operations on Gulf cartel turf in eastern and northeastern Mexico, including large-scale cocaine and weapons seizures, had pushed the gang to look for a new smuggling corridor in Chihuahua state where the army's presence was light until last week's huge deployment.

The Pacific cartel is also known as the Sinaloa cartel and is headed by Mexico's most wanted man, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who declared war on the country's other drug cartels after escaping from prison in a laundry van in 2001.

Analysts say Guzman, whose nickname translates as "Shorty", moved into Ciudad Juarez to try to displace the local Juarez Cartel, which was weakened by the death of its leader in 1997, and that the Gulf cartel has more recently followed it.

President Felipe Calderon deployed some 25,000 soldiers and federal police to drug hot spots across Mexico on taking power in late 2006. Drug-related killings totaled more than 2,500 in 2007 and are already above 850 so far this year.

Garcia said a process of modernizing and bolstering the federal police force should be completed this year, reducing the need for troops on the streets of cartel-dominated areas. (Reporting by Anahi Rama; Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Kieran Murray)