Reporting from Mexico City — Four are killed in what officials call a well-planned trap near a federal police headquarters. It appears to be the first time traffickers have used a car bomb since the start of a military-led offensive against drug cartels.
Drug traffickers have added a powerful weapon to their arsenal, employing a car packed with nearly 20 pounds of explosives to kill police officers, Mexican authorities said Friday.
Four people were killed — including a police officer and a doctor lured to within a few feet of the bomb — in what authorities said was a well-orchestrated trap.
It appears to be the first time traffickers have used a car bomb since President Felipe Calderon launched a military-led offensive against powerful drug cartels shortly after taking office in December 2006.
The use of bombs could dramatically alter the nature of the drug war in Mexico, in which nearly 25,000 people have been killed.
Until now, traffickers and their paramilitary hit men have stuck primarily to high-caliber guns, grenades and decapitations to kill each other and members of government security forces. The specter of bombings — which would inevitably claim more civilian victims — is reminiscent of the deadliest years of narco-violence in Colombia.
The car bomb exploded Thursday evening on a street in the violent city of Ciudad Juarez near a federal police headquarters. Before detonating the bomb, apparently with a cellphone, the assailants had dumped an injured man dressed as a municipal police officer on the sidewalk as bait to lure police and emergency paramedics closer to the vehicle.
"This was very well planned," said Ciudad Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz.
Reyes said the bomb killed a police officer and a doctor who had rushed to the scene to help the injured man. The injured man, who was not a police officer, and a musician who was walking by were also killed.
A camera operator from a local television channel, in the area to cover another incident, was badly injured but managed to film most of the explosion aftermath.
A message left at the scene claimed the Juarez Cartel was responsible for the blast, and it threatened further attacks. "We still have car bombs," it reportedly said.
The Juarez Cartel has been battling government forces and, since earlier this year, the attempted takeover by a rival cartel from Sinaloa. Police had arrested one of its members a few hours before the bomb attack.
Gen. Eduardo Zarate, the army commander in charge of the Ciudad Juarez area, said investigators found the remains of about 20 pounds of explosives, "possibly C-4," as well as the shell of a cellphone. He said he thought that the bombers had been nearby and made a call to the phone to detonate the bomb. The explosion destroyed property for about 30 feet in all directions, he said. The car was engulfed in flames.
"This is an escalation and a challenge," said Jose Reveles, an expert in criminal violence and author of the book "The Uncomfortable Cartel."
The attack sent shock waves through the country. Federal officials quickly tried to tamp down panic.
"We have no evidence of narco-terrorism in the country," Atty. Gen. Arturo Chavez Chavez said in a breakfast meeting with journalists, who repeatedly pressed him on the Ciudad Juarez incident.
Chavez Chavez also released an official drug-war death toll, for the second time this year: 24,800 people killed.
In the early 2000s, traffickers detonated bombs at least twice, but in both cases the targets were rival gangsters. In 2007, a man was killed when the bomb he was carrying went off prematurely as he walked down a Mexico City street.
The attack comes two days after Calderon swapped out his interior minister, the top security official in the country, and three months after federal police replaced the army in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico's deadliest city.
News of the bombing dominated radio and TV shows in Mexico.
"Let's remember that in Colombia they ended up blowing up newspaper offices, candidates, commercial centers," commentator Hector Aguilar Camin. "Let's hope that is not the script for Mexico."
A special correspondent in Ciudad Juarez contributed to this report.