Drug hitmen kill 17 at party in Mexico

MEXICO CITY, (Reuters) – Drug hitmen stormed a  birthday party and killed 17 people in the northern Mexican  city of Torreon yesterday in one of the deadliest attacks in  Mexico’s drug war that came days after a lethal car bomb.

Gunmen in five SUVs drove up to the party in a walled patio  and garden on the outskirts of the city in Coahuila state  across from Texas, smashed down the door and opened fire with  automatic rifles on party-goers who were dancing to live music  at about 1 a.m/0500 GMT, Coahuila’s prosecutor’s office said.

“They came in, opened fire and shot against everything that  moved,” said an official at the prosecutor’s office who  declined to be identified. “Without saying a word to anyone,  they shot at them and fled,” the office said in a statement.

Photos showed blood-stained floor tiles, overturned chairs  and musical instruments by a beer tent abandoned as the people  in their 20s and 30s ran in panic. One of those killed was a  man celebrating his birthday, prosecutors said.

The attack underscored the challenges facing President  Felipe Calderon’s new interior minister, who took up his job  this week facing criticism that he lacked experience to deal  with drug cartels.

The prosecutor’s office in Coahuila said 18 people were  injured in the attack and taken to a Torreon hospital, where  weeping family members waited for news. The party garden was  strewn with more than 100 bullet casings, it said in its  statement. No arrests have been made.

Mexico’s attorney general’s office immediately took over  the investigation into the killings and blamed organized crime  for the attack, state news agency Notimex said.

The early morning shooting comes after a drug gang  detonated a car bomb in Ciudad Juarez late on Thursday, killing  four people in the first attack of its kind in Mexico’s drug  war.

Ciudad Juarez’s main daily, El Diario, reported yesterday  that U.S. agents from the Federal Bureau of Inves-tigation and  the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were in  the city to investigate the car bomb attack. U.S and Mexi-can  officials declined to comment.

Federal police blamed La Linea, the armed wing of the  powerful Juarez cartel, for the car bomb and Mexico’s security  ministry said it was retaliation for the arrest this week of a  cartel member.

In Torreon, it was not clear which cartel was responsible  for the attack but the area, a key transit point along  smuggling routes into the United States, is being fought over  by the Sinaloa cartel led by Mexico’s most-wanted man, Joaquin  “Shorty” Guzman, and the Zetas gang from northeastern Mexico.

Once quiet northern industrial cities such as Torreon and  nearby Monterrey have seen a surge in drug killings in the past  six months as the Zetas fight the Sinaloans and the Gulf cartel  that controls much of the smuggling routes into Texas.

More than 26,000 people have died in drug violence across Mexico since Calderon took office and launched a crackdown on  cartels in Dec 2006. Escalating violence is worrying Washington  and investors in the oil-producing country once known for its  political stability next door to the United States.

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