Reporting from Mexico City — Gunmen stormed a private drug and alcohol treatment clinic in northern Mexico and opened fire, killing 19 people and wounding four, authorities said Friday.
Dozens of armed men arrived in a convoy outside the church-run facility Fe y Vida, or Faith and Life, about 11 p.m. Thursday.
Rene Castillo, the center's pastor, said the men, outfitted with protective vests and face masks, first claimed to be police officers. They fatally shot some of the victims in their rooms, but herded most outside the three-story center before executing them, Castillo said by telephone from the city of Chihuahua.
Castillo said the facility housed two dozen men ages 17 to 60. Some had been gang members involved in criminal activities at one time, he said. But the pastor said the victims were trying to get their lives together.
"They were looking for a way forward," he said.
The attack was the first such incident in Chihuahua, capital of the border state of the same name.
A number of similar clinic attacks, including one in September that left 18 people dead, have taken place in Ciudad Juarez, about 220 miles north of Chihuahua city and the deadliest place in the country as a result of soaring spiraling drug violence.
Drug treatment centers, many of them fly-by-night operations employing questionable strong-arm methods, are targeted by criminal gangs because they sometimes harbor addicts from rival groups or are used as hide-outs, recruiting grounds and drug-selling points, officials and analysts say.
A spokesman for the Chihuahua state prosecutor's office said the shooters Thursday night left behind written messages, but he declined to reveal the contents. Hit men in Mexico's drug war frequently scrawl threatening or taunting notes and drop them alongside the bodies of their enemies.
Authorities did not specify a motive for the attack.
Martin Sandoval, a neighbor who was once treated at the center, said he heard at least three extended bursts of gunfire from what sounded like automatic weapons.
"There were a lot of shots," he said in a telephone interview.
More than 23,000 people have been killed amid drug-related violence in Mexico since December 2006, when President Felipe Calderon declared war on drug cartels and mobilized troops to fight them.
Since then, the state with the largest number of killings has been Chihuahua, though its capital has largely escaped the worst of the mayhem.
Calderon, in South Africa to watch Mexico play in the leadoff game of the World Cup, issued a statement condemning the latest clinic attack and vowed not to let up in his offensive against traffickers.
"They are outrageous acts that reinforce the conviction of the need to fight with the full force of the law against criminal groups that carry out such acts of barbarism," Calderon said.
Sandoval said he knew a number of the men at the drug facility and that some were members of the Mexicles gang, which has battled with another violent gang in northern Chihuahua state, the Aztecas.
The two groups are aligned with rival drug cartels that have fought furiously over control of the cross-border smuggling route around Ciudad Juarez.
Castillo, the pastor, said he was at a loss for what might have led to the bloodshed.
"I don't know why," he said. "We don't have problems with anyone."
Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.