More Americans in Mexico are falling victim to a wave of drug violence sweeping the country, a change driven home by the recent killing of a U.S. Consulate employee and her husband who were gunned down after leaving a children's birthday party.
The number of U.S. citizens killed in Mexico has more than doubled to 78 in 2009 from 37 in 2007, according to the U.S. State Department's annual count. No figures were available for the first two months of 2010.
While only some of the killings are specifically listed as "executions" or "drug-related," the increase in homicides appears to be related to drug battles. In Ciudad Juarez, the northern border city hardest hit by drug violence and where the consulate employee was killed, homicides of Americans rose to 23 in 2009 from two in 2007.
The annual murder rate for the estimated 500,000 American citizens in Mexico at any one time has risen — but still remains lower than in some U.S. cities: about 15 per 100,000. Baltimore's 2009 homicide rate was 37 per 100,000 residents.
American deaths make up only a tiny fraction of Mexico's 17,900 drug-related killings since December 2006, when President Felipe Calderon launched a military-led drug war.
On Saturday, a clash among armed men left eight people dead in the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa. The bodies of seven men were found inside two cars along a highway connecting the cities of Culiacan and Mazatlan, said Sinaloa prosecutors' spokesman Martin Gastelum. An eighth victim, dressed in a fake federal police uniform and holding a grenade, was found near the cars, Gastelum said.
The government says the majority of those killed were involved in the drug trade. But an increasing number of bystanders are dying in the crossfire, and Americans are among them.
Tania Lozoya, 15, of El Paso, Texas, was killed by a stray bullet at her aunt's house across the border in Ciudad Juarez in May 2009, after gunfire broke out when two men chased another man into the backyard of the residence.
In December, a California assistant school principal, Augustin Salcedo, was killed after he was abducted from a restaurant along with five other men while he and his wife were visiting her hometown of Gomez Palacio, in the northern state of Durango. The motive for the mass abduction remains unclear.
Other Americans appear to have been specifically targeted.
U.S. anti-kidnapping expert Felix Batista was abducted by gunmen in December 2008 in the northern city of Saltillo, where he had gone to advise local businessmen on how to avoid becoming victims of the country's wave of kidnappings. He has not been found.
"I see it as, my brother was interfering with their profit margin," said Batista's sister, Jackie Batista. "That's their line of business. Other than drugs, it's kidnapping, so people want to know how to keep themselves safe, and that intrudes into their profit margin."
More than a year after his disappearance, nobody knows for sure who took Batista.
The prosecutors' office in the state of Coahuila, where Saltillo is located, confirmed that no trace of Batista has been found, and they now consider it an inactive case.
"I think that's my biggest fear," Batista said. "That this case will never be resolved. ... Excuse the phrase, and I hate to use it, that it has gone to the grave with those people who were involved."
Americans whose relatives have become victims of Mexico's drug war have established an informal group to support one another and stay informed about what is happening south of the border. "America needs to wake up and smell the kidnappings, smell the drug war," Batista says.
She frequently keeps in touch with San Antonio, Texas resident Jose Esparza, whose two brothers and sister were kidnapped in the northern Mexico town of Cuencame more than a year ago; all were U.S. residents and had spouses or children who are U.S. citizens. As with Felix Batista, there has been no request for ransom, and no sign of the victims.
Esparza says that in Texas alone he has heard from about 10 other people with relatives or friends who disappeared in Mexico.
He and others say they have obtained little or no response from Mexican authorities. Esparza now places his faith in the possibility the U.S. may begin to directly investigate the cases.
"Unless the U.S. government gets involved, nothing is ever going to happen," he said.
FBI officials are aiding Mexican authorities in the investigation into the March 13 killings of U.S. consular employee Lesley A. Enriquez, 35, who was four months pregnant, and her husband, Arthur H. Redelfs, 34.
They were gunned down in their white SUV on a Ciudad Juarez street as they were leaving the birthday party of a child of a U.S. Consulate employee. Their 7-month-old daughter was found wailing in the back of the vehicle.
Investigators are following several lines of investigation as to why gunmen followed the couple's vehicle and a second white SUV that left the same party and was hit in a separate, nearly simultaneous attack. Jorge Alberto Salcido, the husband of a Mexican employee of the consulate, was killed in that assault.
One theory being investigated is that assailants may have been ordered to attack a white SUV, staked out the wrong party and then opened fire on the wrong vehicles.
Another line of investigation is that Redelfs was being targeted because of his work at an El Paso prison, which is holding several members of the Aztecas gang, believed responsible for the attacks.
More than 200 federal, state and local law enforcement officers swept through El Paso on Thursday, picking up suspected members of the gang in an effort to find new leads in the killings.
Ciudad Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes does not think the victims were targeted because of their U.S. ties. "I do not think this was a message to the consulate," Reyes said.
But Enriquez's cousin Vicky Torres doesn't see it that way.
"It's a message for the United States, like a challenge: 'Don't you mess around, you Americans, because this will happen,'" she said.
Lourdes Batista, the kidnap victim's wife, says she hopes the crimes will be a wake-up call for the American public.
"I pray that it will be," she said. "We're fighting a war across a big ocean, but what about here? What about our neighbor?"
(This version CORRECTS the total number of deaths in the drug war to 17,900 instead of 17,000). )
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