Pizzeria owner Jorge Natividad Norman Harrison, 38, originally from California, was among three victims beheaded in an organized-crime hit in Playas de Tijuana in March.
Austin priest Jesse Uresti, 69, was brutally knifed by a trusted employee who later dumped his corpse along a lonely highway in Nuevo Laredo in April.
U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. David Booher, 26, a medic stationed in New Mexico, received a bullet to the head after he tried to help another man shot by hitmen in a Juarez bar in November.
Preliminary statistics and other sources show 2009 was by far the deadliest year for U.S. citizens in Mexico since the Department of State first began releasing international American homicide statistics in 2002.
Final 2009 data is not yet available, according to Jeffrey Galvin, a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. But by June of last year, 37 murders already had been added to the State Department registry, compared with 50 in all of 2008 in Mexico. Dozens of additional homicides have been reported by the U.S. and Mexican media in the last half of 2009.
Among the dead were four young adults aged 19 to 23 — two women and two men — from the California border town of Chula Vista. They were slain and then dumped in their bloodied van in May after partying with the wrong people in Tijuana. Just days ago, hitmen looking for someone else killed a California school board member during a holiday visit to his wife's native Durango state.
Kids in crossfire
In Ciudad Juarez alone, about 30 American citizens and residents were reported slain in 2009, including children and teens caught in crossfire on city streets, based on statistics and reports by El Diario de Juarez newspaper, the Houston Chronicle and other media.
Among those executed was Benjamin LeBaron, a dual Mexican and American citizen considered an anti-crime activist in Chihuahua. LeBaron, who lived in Mexico, was slain alongside with his brother-in-law after publicly condemning those who had previously kidnapped another relative for ransom.
Across Mexico, some U.S. citizen victims, like Father Uresti, of Austin, were slaughtered by people they knew. But most perished in the violent conflicts between warring drug cartels and occupying government military forces, press accounts and other records show. Most murders remain unsolved. Some, like Harrison, had criminal records in the United States.
Ciudad Juarez alone had more than 2,600 slayings in 2009, a tally that gave the city of more than a million residents one of the world's highest homicide rates. Tijuana had more than 600 killings, according to El Universal and El Diario newspapers, whose reporters closely monitor them.
Most Americans' murders were reported in or near Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and Nuevo Laredo, statistics show. All three areas remain dangerous for residents and visitors — especially after dark and in nightclub zones, based on Mexican and U.S. statistics, U.S. government advisories and media reports.
Visit to mother fatal
Nationally, a third or less of Mexican murders get solved, based on data issued by a Mexico City-based institute that conducts research on public safety and analyzes crime statistics nationwide. Most Mexican citizens, in fact, call reporting crimes a “waste of time,” the nonprofit's latest surveys show.
Yet authorities in Ciudad Juarez, occupied by thousands of Mexican soldiers, quickly arrested two men they say executed Booher, the Air Force sergeant, in November. Both were described as hitmen who took orders from La Linea, a Juarez-based cartel, though Booher himself was not involved in organized crime, authorities said
Booher, a married father of one, was described by his Air Force base spokesman as a well-liked medic who also had worked as an extra in Transformers 2, the 2009 action film. Booher was killed after he traveled to Juarez — though an Air Force directive bans travel there because of the dangers — to visit his widowed mother, said Arlan Ponder, chief of media relations at Holloman Air Force Base outside Alamogordo, N.M.
Priest's killers caught
Officers in Tamaulipas also tracked down and quickly arrested the man who confessed to murdering Uresti, the Austin priest.
Uresti had planned to retire in the Nuevo Laredo home where he was hacked to death in April by his irate domestic employee after an argument. The killer dumped bloodied clothing in the washing machine, left the corpse by a roadside and then fled to the southern border state of Chiapas.
Police were able to find the killer after he called the priest's sister to demand money. She wired him about $100, which officials traced to an electronics store. They later arrested the suspect when he returned for more.
That unusual arrest came only after Uresti's family also gave Mexican police officers gas money to search for his body and paid expenses for their trip to Chiapas to pick up the suspect, according to Christian Gonzalez, director of communications for the Austin Diocese of the Catholic church.