CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — The bodies of four strangled doctors, piled atop one another by the side of the road. A bleeding lawyer, hit five times in a shootout on city streets and now in critical condition in a local hospital. Six bullet-riddled bodies in a steakhouse, sprayed with more than 100 rounds by assailants toting AK-47s.
At least 17 people have been slain here, gangland-style, since the July 4 death of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, who ruled Mexico's premier narcotics-smuggling organization.
"It's complete anarchy," said Dr. Carlos Paredes, president of Ciudad Juarez's board of surgeons, as he joined nearly 1,000 other people Sunday for a silent peace march through this sweltering border town in the shadow of El Paso.
U.S. and Mexican officials say it is still unclear whether the wave of violence--each attack seemingly more brazen and brutal than the last--stems from incursions by rivals of Carrillo's Juarez drug cartel or represents an internal shake-up. The group was thrown into turmoil when its godfather died in Mexico City after extensive plastic surgery.
In either case, the recent killings mark an ugly departure from the sophisticated reign of Carrillo, who was widely known for his ability to silence presumed enemies--including Mexico's former anti-drug czar, Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo--with cash. Gutierrez was allegedly on the cartel's payroll.
"Right now, I foresee more bloodshed until somebody emerges as a leader," said Phil Jordan, former director of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's El Paso Intelligence Center.
On Monday, White House anti-drug czar Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey launched a weeklong tour of the southwestern U.S. border by meeting with Mexican authorities in Juarez and praising their "great progress" in battling the cartels. "Clearly the dedication and courage of Mexican law enforcement pushed Amado Carrillo Fuentes to his death," said McCaffrey, suggesting that Carrillo undertook the surgery because he knew authorities were closing in.
McCaffrey suffered the embarrassment of having praised Gutierrez's integrity shortly before the Mexican general was arrested; on Monday he reaffirmed his commitment to making the drug war a binational partnership.
"We will continue to cooperate in the face of this violence and corrupting influence," McCaffrey said at a news conference with Mexico's current anti-drug czar, federal prosecutor Mariano Herran Salvatti.
But in recent days, the news from Juarez has sounded more like that from a war zone than from a diplomatic summit.
On Saturday, the bodies of the four physicians were found in a heap on a patch of dirt near a hospital. None of the doctors had known ties to the drug trade, although there is speculation here that the killings may have been in retaliation for their having treated a suspected trafficker. Hospital officials said a call for medical help was received Friday and that the doctors were dispatched to the home of a reportedly wounded man. The officials now believe that the patient was one of several gunmen who unleashed a rain of bullets on a Juarez attorney earlier that day, part of a wild duel in which the lawyer returned fire.
The attorney has been identified in local newspaper reports as a suspected money launderer and a business partner in the Max Fim restaurant. It was there, on Aug. 3, that two smartly dressed assailants sauntered in and took aim at the table of Alfonso Corral Olaguez, a reputed confidant of the Carrillo organization.
In the blaze of gunfire that followed, Corral and one of his bodyguards were killed. So was a 26-year-old socialite who had joined Corral at the bullfights that afternoon and was meeting him for dinner. Another young couple, celebrating a birthday at a nearby table, got caught in the cross-fire. As the shooters left, they mowed down a top Juarez prison official.
The violence has been so extraordinary that this normally jaded community mobilized the anti-violence march Sunday down the main thoroughfare. "I know the narcos won't hear us," said Father Jose Rene Blanco, a Roman Catholic Church official who participated in the march. "But maybe God will."