February 2, 2010 / 8:30 PM / 9 years ago

Families slam Mexico's Calderon over massacre

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) - Angry families of 15 people slain by gunmen during a high-school party near the U.S. border blamed Mexican President Felipe Calderon on Tuesday for not preventing the mass killing.

A woman and a girl mourn the death of two brothers who were killed at a high school birthday party in Ciudad Juarez February 2, 2010. Suspected drug hitmen burst into a high school birthday party and killed 14 people in Ciudad Juarez on Sunday, the latest massacre in one of the world's deadliest cities. REUTERS/Alejandro Bringas

The Senate also demanded the government explain how the 13 teenagers and two adults could be gunned down at the birthday party in Ciudad Juarez despite a heavy army presence in the city aimed at quelling rampant drug violence.

“Until we find who is responsible, you Mr. President are the assassin,” read a banner scrawled with black ink as dozens of angry relatives, some dressed in black, gathered outside the bloodstained house where the massacre took place in the early hours of Sunday.

Families lit candles and laid flowers by photos of the slain youngsters that they placed by the house and left messages saying “we’re going to miss you boys, we love you.”

The Chihuahua state prosecutors’ office said it was interrogating a man suspected of being involved in the killing and was also offering a 1 million peso ($78,000) reward for information leading to the capture of the killers.

Opposition lawmakers are calling for a new strategy in Ciudad Juarez. Calderon, who sent thousands of troops there last year to clamp down on killings, vowed to respond.

“The federal government will analyze extending and strengthening its strategy in Ciudad Juarez,” he said on Tuesday during an official visit to Japan. He signaled a bigger emphasis on social issues and not just a crackdown on crime.

Federal police and soldiers set up checkpoints across Ciudad Juarez on Tuesday and military helicopters flew overhead, but similar shows of force have failed to have an impact over the past year.

‘LEAVE THOSE KIDS’

Many Mexicans are losing patience with their president.

Since he deployed the army across Mexico in late 2006, more than 17,000 people have been killed in drug gang violence that has only escalated as the army crackdown has fueled turf wars between rival cartels. The bloodshed is a worry for the U.S. government, foreign investors and tourists alike.

“What would President Calderon do without his bodyguards? He wouldn’t last one day alive,” said a female cousin of two teenagers killed in the shooting in Ciudad Juarez, her face reddening with anger.

Witnesses say hitmen jumped out of sport utility vehicles and sprayed bullets at the teenagers celebrating a classmate’s birthday just across the border from El Paso, Texas.

Mexican officials have struggled to find a motive.

Patricia Gonzalez, attorney general for Chihuahua, has said the high school party shooting could be linked to drug cartels, but Ciudad Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz told local radio on Monday that there was no motive and the shooting was random.

The army said 15 people died in Sunday’s attack, although some Mexican media put the death toll at 18.

Neighbors in the working class district where the attack happened said some residents ran into the street as they saw the armed men going into the party just after midnight, shouting “leave those kids, they haven’t done anything wrong.”

The gunmen opened fire at three houses in the street, finally storming into the birthday party just as the youngsters were lighting candles on the cake, survivors said.

Bodies lay on the street and blood ran out of the house.

Ciudad Juarez has become the epicenter of Mexico’s drug war, as gangs fight over smuggling routes into the United States and access to local addicts. Law and order is breaking down in the city, with gunmen killing rivals and innocent civilians at will.

Over the past two years, heavily armed hitmen have attacked each other on busy streets and outside schools, strung murdered rivals from bridges and left severed heads by police buildings. Killings are becoming more indiscriminate as gunmen hunt for rivals in parties, hospitals and drug rehabilitation centers.

Slideshow (2 Images)

Some 2,650 people were killed in drug violence in Ciudad Juarez last year. Murders have jumped since the start of 2010.

Mexico is the key transit route for U.S.-bound cocaine from South America and a top producer of marijuana and heroin.

($1=12.86 pesos)

Additional reporting by Miguel Angel Gutierrez in Mexico City; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Eric Beech

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