The Associated Press
Five suspected drug cartel hit men were killed in a shootout with army soldiers in Greater Monterrey, Mexico’s business capital, officials said Saturday.
The Defense Secretariat said in a statement that a group of “organized crime” gunmen carried out a gunfire and grenade attack at around midnight Friday on a military convoy that was patrolling the city of Santa Catarina – about 15 kilometers (9 miles) southwest of downtown Monterrey – as part of a crackdown on cartel violence.
The soldiers “acted in self-defense” and repelled the aggression, killing five of the assailants and seizing five automatic rifles, a handgun, two vehicles, several rounds of ammunition and ammunition clips, the secretariat said.
It added that two innocent bystanders were wounded by the grenades and taken to a hospital for treatment.
A turf war between the Gulf cartel and former allies Los Zetas in the northern state of Nuevo Leon, whose capital is Monterrey, left more than 670 people, including a record 75 police officers, dead last year.
Monterrey, home to more than 50,000 corporations, including some of the largest multinational businesses in Mexico, fears for its future if the violence is not stopped.
This is a very difficult time, perhaps the most difficult in the recent history of Nuevo Leon” state, Gov. Rodrigo Medina said earlier this week.
Monterrey Mayor Fernando Larrazabal, for his part, said the cities in the metro area have been overwhelmed by organized crime groups and lack the “capacity and armament” to deal with them.
The surge in violence is hurting the hospitality industry, which saw average hotel occupancy rates fall as low as 41 percent in 2010, while the average occupancy rate for the year was 60 percent
The Monterrey metropolitan area, which is made up of nine cities with a total population of 4 million, has experienced about 50 attacks involving grenades and bombs, including a car bombing, against police stations.
The city is also being plagued by so-called “narco-blockades” in which members of youth gangs recruited by drug cartels use trucks, automobiles and buses to block some of the main thoroughfares and slow army deployments.
Cemex, the world’s third-largest cement company, is among the industrial corporations that call Monterrey home.
Alfa, the world’s No. 1 producer of aluminum engine heads and blocks; Femsa, Coca-Cola’s second-largest bottler; and Vitro, North America’s biggest glass producer, are among the other industrial powerhouses that have headquarters in the city.
Elsewhere, four people were killed Friday in a gangland shootout near a preschool in the western Mexican state of Nayarit, local officials said.
In a preliminary report, the state Attorney General’s Office said the deaths were the result of a gun battle between gunmen from rival criminal organizations active in that area of western Mexico.
The clash took place “at a house behind a preschool” in the town of Pantanal, near the state capital of Tepic, a spokesman for the state AG’s office said.
Local media said the preschool was empty at the time of the shootout and that traces of blood were found in several of its classrooms.
These latest clashes come amid spiraling organized crime-related violence in Mexico, including 15,273 drug-linked homicides nationwide last year.
A total of 34,612 people were killed between December 1, 2006, when President Felipe Calderon took office and began deploying tens of thousands of army soldiers and federal police to drug war hotspots, and Jan. 12 of this year, the president’s office says.
The strategy has led to the elimination of several crime bosses and record drug seizures over the past four years, including the confiscation of 23 tons of cocaine in a single operation in November 2007.
Yet the amount of seized drugs represents a small percentage of the estimated total that originates in or is smuggled through Mexico.