CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexico’s army will take over the local police force in the border city of Ciudad Juarez where it helped quell a deadly prison riot on Wednesday in its widening war against drug gangs.
Soldiers poured into the city this week to restore order after 250 people died in February in a feud between drug gangs, which are often aided by corrupt police.
Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, and home to foreign-owned factories that export to the United States, has become the main flashpoint in President Felipe Calderon’s two-year-old war against drug smugglers.
Some of the several thousand troops expected in Ciudad Juarez by the end of this week will take over the municipal police, local jails and police traffic department.
On Wednesday they helped federal police quash a fight between drug gang inmates in a prison on the city’s edge that left 20 people dead.
“General Galvan will appoint soldiers to take control of the municipal police next week,” a spokesman for the Ciudad Juarez mayor’s office said, referring to Defense Minister General Guillermo Galvan.
Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora told Reuters on Tuesday the government is deeply worried about the killings in Ciudad Juarez, which have sparked fears that the war between drug cartels might spill over to the United States.
The U.S. and Canadian governments have warned tourists to stay away from dangerous border cities this spring. Mexico is a prime destination for college students traveling on spring break vacations.
Mexico’s army has increasingly taken over police operations to stiffen the resolve of agents who are often bribed to join the cartels or killed if they do not.
Ciudad Juarez’s previous police chief, Roberto Orduna, quit two weeks ago after drug hitmen murdered his deputy and another officer and pledged a police murder every 48 hours until he resigned.
Soldiers in Humvees backed by helicopters supported police as they brought a prison in the desert outside Ciudad Juarez under control after the riot.
Inmates from a drug gang known as the “Aztecas” seized a guard’s keys at the state penitentiary and opened cell doors, freeing 170 prisoners who went on a rampage.
“They attacked other prisoners in a high-security area with iron bars and home-made firearms,” said Victor Valencia, the state government representative in the city.
The Aztecas are believed to be allied to the Juarez cartel, which is fighting Mexico’s most-wanted man, Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman, for control of smuggling routes into the United States.
That feud is the most violent outbreak of a drug war that killed more than 6,000 people in Mexico last year.
Mexico’s army hopes to have 7,500 soldiers and federal police in Ciudad Juarez by the end of this week. They will patrol the streets and man checkpoints at the airport and on bridges across the Rio Grande into Texas.
(Additional reporting by Catherine Bremer)
Editing by Xavier Briand