A 2009 episode of the award-winning TV drama Breaking Bad depicts a scene in Mexico's bullet-ridden border town of Ciudad Juárez: police are lured to a location to find an informant's severed head stuck on a turtle, which itself turns out to be a booby trap that explodes, killing and maiming the law enforcers after they approach it.
Seasoned correspondents of the real drug war in Mexico thought the sequence was an over-the-top depiction of gang tactics — until last week.
Federal policemen and explosive experts work at the site of a car-bomb attack in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on July 16, 2010.
In the real Ciudad Juárez on Thursday, July 15, gangsters kidnapped a man, dressed him in a police uniform, shot him and dumped him bleeding on a downtown street. A cameraman happened to film what happened after federal police and paramedics got close. The video shows medics bent over the dumped man, checking for vital signs.
Suddenly a bang rings out, and the image shakes vigorously as the cameraman runs for his life. The gangsters had used a cell phone to detonate 22 lb. of C-4 explosives packed into a nearby car. A minute later, the camera turns back around to reveal the remains of a burning car, smoke over screaming victims and charred corpses. Three people, including a federal police officer, were killed, and several others injured.
Mexico's drug war has become so brutal that nothing seems off-limits to the criminal imagination. It is as if rival cartels are competing for ever more shocking methods of execution. First, killers beheaded two policemen in April 2006.
The following September, a gang threw five severed craniums onto a disco dance floor. In 2008, a rival cartel decapitated 12 victims, filmed the craniums and uploaded the video to the Internet. The same year, gangsters threw grenades into a crowd of revelers celebrating Independence Day, killing eight. Now there are the corpse decoy and car bomb.
Mexican officials blamed the Juárez incident on La Linea, a gang that kills and enforces for the local drug-smuggling cartel. The bomb, they say, was reprisal for the arrest of alleged La Linea commander Jesus Acosta, a.k.a. El 35.
Federal police had released an interrogation video in which Acosta describes La Linea's tactics. It was the latest of several videos of captured cartel members describing how they allegedly set up murders and carved limbs and heads off victims. Critics accuse the police of obtaining the videos through torture; they also say the videos fail to provide clear evidence and may serve only to provoke gangsters to retaliate.
"A car bomb on our southern border is a wake-up call to how sophisticated and ruthless these guys have become," says a U.S. law-enforcement official involved in combating Mexican cartels. "We are dealing with narco-insurgents."
Set off by a cell phone rather than a fuse, the car bomb is called a "command-detonated device," the official explains, akin to many IEDs used in Iraq. The bomb could have been made from improvised materials bought in stores, although it may have had parts cannibalized from military equipment, he says.
American agents have been concerned for some time about military weapons and explosives falling into the hands of Mexican cartels. A report by the U.S. Bomb Data Center obtained by TIME describes how in February 2009 Mexican gangsters stole a large quantity of explosives and detonators from a site owned by a Texan manufacturer in the Mexican state of Durango.
There were 15 to 20 assailants "armed with guns and machine guns, face cover and similar military wear" who overpowered security, the report said. "This incident has the potential for giving rise to further explosives-related incidents in the region."
Firefights and massacres are now weekly occurrences in Mexico. On Sunday, July 18, gunmen interrupted a late-night party in the city of Torreón, shooting dead 18 people. So far, barely seven months into the year, officials have reported 7,048 drug-related killings, making 2010 likely to top the 9,635 such murders recorded in 2009. But even for Mexicans numbed to the relentless reports of bloodshed, the Ciudad Juárez car bomb sparked shock and fear.
While such tactics have long been used in Iraq and Colombia, this was the first effective car-bomb strike against police in Mexico. It has had a terrifying effect on Juárez and the rest of the country, simply because bombs are more likely to kill bystanders uninvolved in the drug wars. In a bad year, the potential for more carnage just got worse.