TIJUANA — Leonor Merino said she was shocked enough Monday to find that what she thought was a pile of rags was a dozen bodies. Then she realized children soon would be passing by the carnage on the way to school.
So as class time approached at Valentin Gomez Farias elementary school, Merino and her neighbors blocked the streets.
"We closed the streets so the kids wouldn't see all the dead bodies," Merino said hours after the bodies were removed. "Our hearts are trembling right now. We're wondering what's going to happen next."
The grisly discovery capped four days of violence that has shaken the sprawling Tijuana metropolitan area and forced Baja California state officials to plead for more federal police to help control the city. Police on Monday also discovered four bodies in a vacant lot in eastern Tijuana. They had been carefully arranged in a circle and, like other such scenes, carried a narco-message.
On Sunday, gunmen killed three people in nearby Rosarito Beach. On Friday, three police patrolling in their car were killed in a drive-by shooting. Earlier last week, four other police officers were wounded in drive-by attacks.
At least 380 people have been killed this year in Tijuana, most of them victims of organized crime, according to Baja California Atty. Gen. Rommel Moreno Manjarrez's office.
Moreno suggested Monday night that the killing spree resulted from the Mexican government's nearly 2-year-old offensive against organized crime groups, such as the Arellano Felix cartel, that are competing for lucrative trade routes into the United States. "We're in a war, a constant battle, and today you're seeing the results," he said.
Two of the victims were 18 years old and one was 15, Moreno noted.
The 12 bodies were discovered in Colonia Las Plazas, a quiet working-class area near the Tijuana airport. Residents bar their doors and windows, but the area of neatly kept stucco homes and roadside food stands had been spared the worst of the drug war violence.
The assailants apparently drove into the area about 4 a.m. Residents said they heard a quick barrage of gunfire, but did not report it.
Later, they emerged from their homes and found the bodies of 11 young men and one woman.
Bodies are regularly dumped in vacant lots in Tijuana. Mutilated corpses have turned up near churches or been left beheaded near hospitals and stores. But it is rare for killers to leave victims in a residential area, let alone across from a school.
Residents studied the victims for faces from the neighborhood. None of the bodies carried identification, and none of the faces seemed familiar, the residents said. "It was horrible, something you only see in the movies," said one middle-aged resident who gave his name only as Victor. "It didn't look real."
Residents said police did not arrive at the scene for several hours, so neighbors set up roadblocks themselves. Classes were canceled while police investigated and news media swarmed the area.
Police said a plastic bag filled with severed tongues was found near the bodies. According to Moreno's office, a message scrawled on cardboard, propped on one body, threatened more violence: "This is what happens to anyone associated with the loud mouth engineer." The reputed leader of the Arellano Felix cartel is said to be Fernando Sanchez Arellano, nicknamed El Ingeniero -- the Engineer. Authorities believe the cartel has splintered into rival groups, some of which may be allied with other Mexican organized crime syndicates trying to muscle into the city.
Victor, the middle-aged resident, said it was sad that the violence was spilling into once-safe neighborhoods. He had to keep his children from looking out the window at the gruesome scene.
"It makes you realize things are very bad here in Tijuana," he said.
Mexico Under Siege
For previous coverage of Mexico's drug war, go to latimes.com/siege.