Reynosa, Tamaulipas — Dianne Segovia only visited Reynosa to mourn the death of her big sister.
Hesitant to visit the violent border city, a gun battle was the last thing Segovia wanted to witness at her relative’s funeral Thursday afternoon. The 21-year-old San Juan native said her family was concluding a burial ceremony at a cemetery near the city’s Broncos bridge when they heard what sounded like a machine gun and several other firearms go off in the distance.
Crying and embracing one another, relatives huddled inside a mausoleum to hide from the assailants and looked on as soldiers, tanks and helicopters swarmed the area.
“This stuff is happening at the worst time possible,” Segovia said. “It’s just really, really bad over there.”
As recently as Friday night, three inmates of a Reynosa prison were killed when 10 trucks carrying gunmen besieged the facility, setting off a gun battle with prison staff, according to a news alert from the Tamaulipas government. Order was restored to the prison by about 10 p.m.
Reynosa city officials first announced a “situation of risk” at the Cereso Dos state prison on Reynosa’s southern outskirts via Twitter feed about 8:20 p.m.
Tamaulipas state police officials refused to elaborate on the situation via telephone late Friday evening, instead referring phone calls to the federal attorney general’s office in Reynosa.
A spokesman there did not answer phone calls that night. Officials with the city’s Police Department also did not answer calls.
Meanwhile, city officials posted Twitter and Facebook updates advising the public to avoid the area.
“Even if you do not hear detonations, the situation of risk remains,” city officials posted on Twitter. “Please take precautions.”
Earlier this year, authorities investigated an apparent shooting at the same prison. And in late October 2008, more than 50 inmates were transferred from the facility after rioting resulted in 21 prisoners killed and a dozen more injured.
Tamaulipas state police also confirmed via Internet on Friday that five people were killed on the city’s southwest side that morning during a battle between an armed gang and Mexican army soldiers.
That shooting happened in the Lomas de Jarachina Sur neighborhood. Authorities did not say whether soldiers were among the dead.
This week has been violent in Tamaulipas cities near the U.S. border. Friday’s deaths pushed the body count to at least 25 among armed people battling authorities across the region since Tuesday, authorities confirmed. And that excludes the deaths of the three prison inmates Friday, whose roles in the violence remain unclear.
Authorities have said the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas — the two dominant drug smuggling groups in the region — have been fighting each other and authorities as the once-allied cartels vie for control over smuggling routes into the United States.
Suspected drug cartel members launched coordinated attacks at military installations in Tamaulipas border cities Tuesday, resulting in 18 fatalities, two injuries and seven arrests among attackers that day, the Mexican Defense Ministry said late Wednesday night.
Nearly 13,000 rounds of ammunition, scores of grenades, guns, and several rocket launchers and improvised explosive devices were among the weapons soldiers seized after the Tuesday attacks.
Defense officials said only one soldier was hurt — he lost a thumb while under attack.
The Tuesday attacks came amid blockades across Reynosa, reportedly set up by gunmen who forced bus and truck drivers to block main roads with their vehicles. Several blockades were set up near the Mexican army base along Highway 2 to prevent soldiers from patrolling the city, Defense Ministry officials said.
At least one man was killed during a confrontation with troops Wednesday while soldiers and armed men exchanged gunfire near Boulevard Colosio in the Nuevo Amanecer neighborhood in north Reynosa.
City officials also reported two shootouts Thursday afternoon near the Broncos bridge — likely the incident that Segovia’s family witnessed. At least one man was killed during those attacks.
Street violence has surged in cities across from South Texas at least since mid-February, killing scores of suspected cartel members.
More than 18,700 people have been killed in Mexico since President Felipe Calderón launched a crackdown on organized crime in late 2006, Mexican daily El Universal reported Thursday. The 958 slayings in March made it the most violent month since 2005, when the war among organized crime groups in the country escalated.
Meanwhile, Valley residents like Segovia who get caught amid attacks are urging people north of the Rio Grande to avoid visiting their neighbors to the south.
“Right now it’s just risky going over there,” Segovia said. “It’s a risk I’m not willing to take.”
Segovia said the family was placing roses on top of her sister’s grave when the “pops” began to go off. Then they heard a car screech and crash. Everyone hit the ground.
“We were scared that the helicopters would just start shooting at all of us,” she said. “(The shooting) was like a minute long, but it seemed like forever.”
Segovia called Mexico a “war zone, because that’s what it looked like as we left.”
“It’s sad to know we had to lay our sister to rest there,” she said. “We don’t know when we will go visit her again, or if this was our last time.”