TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) - Seventeen Mexican drug gang members were killed near the U.S. border on Saturday, their bodies scattered along a road after one of the deadliest shootouts in Mexico’s three-year narco-war.
Rival factions of the Arellano Felix drug cartel in Tijuana on the Mexico-California border battled each other with rifles and machine guns in the early hours of the morning, police said.
Fourteen bodies were lying in pools of blood on a road near assembly-for-export maquiladora plants on the city’s eastern limits. The corpses were surrounded by hundreds of bullet casings and many of their faces were destroyed.
The 15th body was found nearby. Two more men died in hospital on Saturday evening, police said.
Six men were wounded and another six were arrested, but some gang members are thought to have escaped.
Two of the dead were believed to be senior hitmen for the Arellano Felix cartel and were identified by large gold rings on their fingers. The rings carried the icon of Saint Death, a ghoulish figure that gangsters believe protects them, police said.
“Today shows we are facing a terrible war never seen before on the (U.S.-Mexico) border,” Baja California Attorney General Rommel Moreno told a news conference.
Some 190 people have been killed in Tijuana so far this year. In 2007, there were more than 2,500 drug killings across Mexico and there have been more than 900 this year.
Police cordoned off the surrounding roads, forcing workers at a nearby maquiladora to walk through the crime scene to get to work.
“Another shootout,” said a woman who gave her name only as Lisa. “There are just too many. We are so afraid.”
Heavily armed federal police patrolled across Tijuana after the gunfight. Soldiers and police guarded the city’s main hospital where the wounded were being treated to prevent any attempt by drug gangs to pull them out.
Baja California state police chief Daniel de la Rosa said fresh troops from Mexico City were arriving in Tijuana, which borders San Diego, California.
President Felipe Calderon has sent thousands of troops to Tijuana and Baja California state since taking office in December 2006. Some 25,000 soldiers and federal police are deployed to fight cartels in drug hot spots across Mexico.
The army in Tijuana said it was on high alert for reprisals against soldiers and federal police after the shootout and the ensuing arrests.
“The risk of attacks against our agents after an event like this is extremely high,” said Lt. Col Julian Leyzaola, Tijuana’s police chief.
The Arellano Felix gang was long the dominant trafficking organization in Tijuana, smuggling drugs into California. Recently the group has been under attack from a rival gang from the Pacific state of Sinaloa, led by Mexico’s most wanted man, Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman.
Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by John O'Callaghan