The government of Chihuahua has suggested that the sicarios responsible for the executions belong to the gang of "Los Aztecas."
Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua - The Aztecas gang and La Linea may be involved in the murders Saturday of three people with ties to the U.S. consulate in Juarez, the Chihuahua state attorney general's said.
The lead is based on information exchanged between U.S. and Mexican authorities, according to a statement by the attorney general's office.
La Linea is a drug-trafficking network associated with the Carrillo Fuentes drug cartel, and the Aztecas gang, which has counterparts in El Paso's Barrio Azteca gang, consist of drug retailers and enforcers for the cartel.
The victims were identified as Lesley A. Enriquez, an official of the consulate, her husband Arthur Haycock Redelfs (both pictured), both Americans, and Mexican Jorge Alberto Salcido Ceniceros, married to another consular employer.
Investigators seek motive in 3 slayings in Mexico.
The two families climbed into white SUVs and almost simultaneously left the children's birthday party put on by the U.S. consulate. One headed deeper into one of the world's most dangerous cities, the other toward a bridge to El Paso, one of America's safest.
Neither made it.
Gunmen chased down the two vehicles and opened fire in attacks that raised the chilling prospect that Mexico's cartels have dropped any reservations about killing American officials in their battle for the multibillion-dollar U.S. drug market.
Three adults with connections to the U.S. consulate were killed, and two children were wounded.
Mexico said U.S. intelligence pointed toward the Aztecas street gang, which is aligned with the murderous Juarez drug cartel. Authorities raised the possibility that only one of the families was targeted, while the other was chased because they both drove white SUVs. They offered no details of this theory.
Authorities in both countries said they don't know yet why the families were attacked.
"There is a concern at the possibility of attacks specifically aimed at diplomats stationed in the country, and that would be very serious," Ciudad Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes told a local radio station.
Soldiers stand guard at a crime scene where the crashed car of a US consulate employee sits in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Sunday, March 14, 2010. A US consulate employee and her husband were shot to death Saturday in their car, where their baby was found unharmed in the back seat, near the Santa Fe International bridge linking Ciudad Juarez with El Paso, Texas, according to Vladimir Tuexi, a spokesman for Chihuahua state prosecutors' office.
The FBI joined the investigation Monday, working with U.S. State Department agents and Mexican authorities.
Consulate spokesman Silvio Gonzalez said the party Saturday was thrown by the U.S. diplomatic mission in Ciudad Juarez. Were it not for that connection, the attacks would hardly have been remarkable in a city where 2,601 people were killed in drug violence last year.
After the slayings, the U.S. Embassy warned Americans to "delay unnecessary travel to parts of Durango, Coahuila and Chihuahua states."
Authorities would not say where the birthday party was held, but said it was not at the consulate. As the party wound down, the two families left separately.
Arthur H. Redelfs, an American who works as a jail guard in El Paso, was at the wheel of his white Toyota RAV4, driving along the broad riverside avenue leading to the Santa Fe Bridge across the border. His wife, Lesley A. Enriquez, a consulate employee who was four months pregnant, was at his side. Their baby girl was strapped into a car seat in back.
A Suburban fell in behind them, and Redelfs gunned the engine. They raced for a half-mile, coming within sight of downtown El Paso before Redelfs paused at the last intersection before the bridge. It was enough of an opening for the gunmen to slam into the driver's-side hood, then open fire.
Enriquez was killed by a single bullet in the head; her husband by two shots in the neck and arm. Their baby was unhurt, left wailing in the back seat.
Meanwhile, Jorge Alberto Salcido Ceniceros, a Mexican citizen who works at a factory south of the border, left the party with his two children, ages 4 and 7, in his white Honda Pilot. His wife, a Mexican citizen who works at the consulate, was not with them. They headed in the opposite direction, into Ciudad Juarez, where they lived.
Salcido speeded up when a car gave chase, racing down an avenue for 600 yards before the gunmen caught up with him. He was killed, and both children were wounded in a hail of bullets from an assault rifle.
"As to whether this was a particular incident directed at U.S. diplomats, I think we're not prepared to draw that conclusion yet," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in Washington.
Enriquez's job involved aiding U.S. citizens, Crowley said. It was not immediately clear what kind of job Salcido's wife held at the consulate.
The crashed car of a US consulate employee and her husband sit at a crime scene in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Sunday, March 14, 2010. A US consulate employee and her husband were shot to death Saturday in their car near the Santa Fe International bridge linking Ciudad Juarez with El Paso, Texas, and their baby was found unharmed in the back seat, according to Vladimir Tuexi, a spokesman for Chihuahua state prosecutors' office.
While several U.S. citizens have been killed in the drug war - most of them people with family ties to Mexico - it is rare for American government employees to be targeted.
The last high-profile slaying of a U.S. official in Mexico was the 1985 murder of Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena by Mexican drug traffickers. In 2008, attackers opened fire and threw a grenade at the U.S. consulate in the northern city of Monterrey, but the grenade didn't explode and nobody was hurt.
The violence in Ciudad Juarez had been creeping closer to the U.S. consulate before the latest attack, and on Friday the consulate declared a bar just down the block off-limits for security reasons.
The mayor speculated that the gunmen in Saturday's attack could have targeted one family and followed the other because it was in a similar car.
"One thing that could be significant is that the two SUVs were similar," he said. "The same type of vehicle, the same color, leaving the same party."
The mayor said Salcido may have worked previously as a police officer, but prosecutors said they could not confirm that. Police have been targeted in the drug violence that has made Ciudad Juarez one of the deadliest cities in the world.
The U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez, shut for a Mexican holiday on Monday, will remain closed Tuesday as "a way for the community to mourn the loss," Gonzalez said.
It was the second U.S. border consulate closed because of violence in the past month. The consulate in Reynosa, across from McAllen, Texas, was closed for several days in late February because of gun battles.
The State Department said it would offer housing allowances to employees at six U.S. consulates, including the one in Ciudad Juarez, who decide to send family members to safer areas. Crowley said about 100 dependents are eligible in Ciudad Juarez alone.
Crowley said that decision - based on the general level of violence rather than a specific threat - was made last week but wasn't announced until after the shootings.
The attacks came during a particularly bloody weekend in Mexico, with nearly 50 people killed in apparent gang violence. Nine people were killed in a gang shootout early Sunday in the Pacific resort city of Acapulco, where spring break was getting into gear.
Mexican marines and Navy personnel announced Monday they had launched a raid against an operations base run by the Zeta drug gang near Monterrey. A convoy of fleeing vehicles opened fire on a Marine helicopter following them, officials said. The Marines chased them down, some on foot, and killed eight suspects.
Elsewhere in Chihuahua state on Monday, running gun battles in the tourist town of Creel left seven people dead and two seriously wounded, while farther south prosecutors reported the bodies of five men were found on the side of a highway.
The bodies bore signs of torture and multiple gunshot wounds. They were found beneath an SUV that was apparently used to crush them.
Decision on Americans' departure was before deaths.
After deciding last week to help family members of U.S. consulate employees in northern Mexico leave the area, the State Department waited until Sunday to announce the move.
It's not clear that an earlier announcement would have changed the outcome in the city near El Paso, Texas, since two of the three shooting victims lived on the U.S. side of the border and the third person was a local Mexican not covered by the departure plan.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the decision to authorize the departure of family members of employees of six U.S. consulates in northern Mexico was made no later than last Friday. He was not certain of the date. The announcement was held to couple it with an updated State Department travel warning for Americans in Mexico. The warning superseded one issued in late February.
"It is imperative that U.S. citizens understand the risks in Mexico, how best to avoid dangerous situations, and who to contact if victimized," the new travel warning said, adding, "Drug cartels and associated criminal elements have retaliated violently against individuals who speak out against them or whom they otherwise view as a threat to their organizations."
Crowley said Saturday's murders are under investigation and that he had no clear indication of whether those killed had been targeted.
About 100 family members of consulate employees in Ciudad Juarez are eligible for the authorized departure, Crowley said, adding that he did not know how many had decided to leave. He said it was not any specific threat or event that triggered the decision to authorize the departures, but rather a general concern about declining security.
Faye Barnes, president of Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide, which represents foreign service spouses, employees and retirees, said in a telephone interview that she saw no cause for concern that the State Department waited until Sunday to announce the authorized departures.
The spokesman was noncommittal on the question of whether the three had been targeted by the assailants.
"As to whether this was a particular incident directed at U.S. diplomats, I think we're not prepared to draw that conclusion yet," he said.
FBI, DEA join probe of Juarez killings
Dozens of officials from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and other U.S. agencies joined an investigation Monday into the killings of three people tied to the U.S. Consulate in the Mexican city of Juarez, scrambling to determine whether the slayings marked an escalation in the region's drug war or were simply cases of mistaken identity, officials said.
FBI spokeswoman Andrea Simmons in El Paso, across the border from Juarez, said investigators had not determined the motive for the shootings.
But, she said, "at this point, we don't have any indication the victims were targeted because of their employment at the consulate."
In a sign of how seriously the Mexican government regards the case, Attorney General Arturo Chavez Chavez traveled to Juarez on Monday to oversee the investigation, according to El Diario, a newspaper in the city. Mexican President Felipe Calderon and President Obama expressed indignation at the murders.
A Mexican official familiar with the cases said there were two main lines of investigation: whether the shootings were "a direct message to the U.S." or were instances of mistaken identity. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the probe is continuing.