CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexican soldiers fought gun battles with drug cartel hitmen near the U.S. border on Tuesday after gangsters abducted local police in violence that killed 21 people and left bodies strewn in the desert.
Soldiers pursued the hitmen through freezing desert in the northern state of Chihuahua after they dragged nine people, including some police, out of houses and shot six of them at a ranch in the early hours of Tuesday, the army said.
Heavily armed soldiers burst into the ranch, near the Texan border, and shot dead several of the hitmen, later chasing another group by helicopter before killing them too, army spokesman Enrique Torres said from the area.
“The bodies were strewn across the desert outside the nearby town of Villa Ahumada,” said Torres. An army sergeant was among the dead.
It was one of the bloodiest scenes this year in a spiraling drug war that killed more than 5,700 people across Mexico in 2008, damaging the public’s faith in President Felipe Calderon and raising fears of a spillover into the United States.
Calderon deployed the army and federal police to tackle drug violence at the end of 2006, triggering a series of vicious turf battles between rival cartels.
The surge in bloodshed has scared off foreign tourists and investors along the border just as a global economic crisis is pushing Mexico into recession.
As daylight shootings surge along the border, the U.S. government is set to begin dispersing hundreds of millions of dollars in anti-drug aid for Mexico and Central America this year to pay for surveillance equipment, helicopters and police training.
“This kind of violence underscores the need for more U.S. support in defeating the cartels,” Thomas Schweich, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, said of Tuesday’s battles.
“We really underestimate the risk in the United States from drug cartel violence spilling over the border and the risk that Mexico becomes a route for anti-U.S. extremists,” he said.
Chihuahua state and its main border city Ciudad Juarez have become the deadliest flashpoints in the drug war as cartels fight over trafficking routes into the United States.
Residents in Villa Ahumada said they saw a convoy of SUVs ride through the snow-covered cattle ranching town before dawn on Tuesday and several people were abducted from their homes. Some people later heard shots in the countryside.
“People are really afraid of a revenge attack by hitmen after this violence,” a local journalist who asked not to be named told Reuters from Villa Ahumada.
More than 2,000 of the drug war deaths recorded last year were in Chihuahua state, including the murder of 13 people at a party in August.
The presence of more than 3,000 troops and federal police in Chihuahua has done nothing to contain the violence. Ciudad Juarez, a manufacturing city in the desert across from El Paso, Texas, has seen beheadings, daily shootouts and a surge in kidnappings and extortion.
Mexico’s army and drug trade analysts say the country’s most-wanted man, Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman, has declared war on Chihuahua’s drug baron Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, and the Gulf cartel based around the Gulf of Mexico has joined the fight.
Writing and additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Monterrey; Editing by Kieran Murray