The massacre of 18 people at a drug rehabilitation center near the Texas border is part of a final push by one drug cartel to finish off another some say.
The killings – the largest mass slaying in recent memory in the country's most violent city – raised a three-day death toll in Juárez to nearly 40, despite the presence of 10,000 federal troops and police.
"We're witnessing the extermination of the Juárez cartel," said Alfredo Quijano, editor of Norte a Juárez newspaper. It is a war between the entrenched Juárez cartel and the rival Sinaloa cartel. "The Linea, or Juárez cartel, is down to its last line of defense."
Sinaloa hit men are "killing people at will, hitting them like sitting ducks."
Drug violence killed more than 1,600 people in Juárez in 2008, the year the two cartels, which once formed part of an alliance known as the Federation, declared war on each other.
The two men reportedly in charge, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes of the Juárez cartel and Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán of the Sinaloa cartel, are bitter rivals and have accused each other of targeting family members – a situation that makes any reconciliation virtually impossible.
A U.S. investigator, speaking on condition of anonymity, generally agreed with Quijano's assessment but cautioned: "We're a ways off from declaring one group the winner. For now, I'd say the Sinaloa cartel clearly has the upper hand."
At 7:30 on a Wednesday evening, as residents of the Aliviane rehab center were gathering for their regular AA-style meeting, about a dozen men dressed in commando-style garb walked into the center and, list in hand, called out the names of several men, witnesses and authorities said. The men were lined up against a wall of the center and sprayed with bullets from AK-47 rifles.
Over the past year, experts say, rehab clinics such as Aliviane have been targeted by rival gangs because they also serve as recruiting grounds for cartels looking for hit men.
Aliviane was known as an informal base for members of a gang known as "the Aztecas," whose membership has spread into El Paso and Los Angeles.
"My basic interpretation of what happened is that it is part of the back-and-forth series of massacres between the Cartel de Juárez/Aztecas and Chapo – similar to massacres between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq," said Howard Campbell, an expert on Mexican drug cartels and author of an upcoming book on the drug war.
"The rehab places in that area are filled with Aztecas, so it would seem to be enemies of the Aztecas who did it."
The next day after the massacre, the rehab center's hallway and patio remained covered in blood, and a trail of bloody footsteps led outside. Chained inside was a chocolate-colored pit bull whimpering for water. The body of another pit bull lay nearby in the hot sun. The dog had been shot during the attack.
Across the street, a middle-age couple arrived home after spending the night at a hotel. They had heard the gunshots the night before and left in a hurry. They are back now but also the fear of insecurity and of uncertainty. Will it take victory of one cartel to bring peace to the city? The stakes have never been so high.