Reporting from Mexico City — Ten students on their way to receive government scholarships were killed by gunmen at a checkpoint in the state of Durango, officials said Monday. Half of the victims were 16 or younger.
The checkpoint appeared to be the ad hoc type of roadblock often set up by drug traffickers who control parts of Durango, not a military installation, state prosecutors said.
Gunmen opened fire and hurled grenades at the youths, who were traveling in a pickup truck and apparently failed to stop at the roadblock, the officials said.
The dead included three girls, ages 8, 11 and 13; the rest were teens except for the eldest, who was 21. Four of the dead were siblings. The massacre occurred early Sunday afternoon.
The students were traveling over isolated rural roads to receive scholarships as part of a federal program called "Opportunities" that supports low-income students, Ruben Lopez, spokesman for the Durango state prosecutor's office, said in a telephone interview.
Parts of Durango have fallen under the sway of drug-running gunmen called the Zetas, who are battling for control of market and distribution routes.
Interior Minister Fernando Gomez Mont, at a news conference Monday, read out the names and ages of the victims, who he said were "cowardly murdered" by criminal gangs.
He denied that the checkpoint was staffed by soldiers.
Daniel Delgado, mayor of Pueblo Nuevo, a town in the region where the attack took place, said he felt powerless to challenge the gangs.
"We need more military presence . . . more police who are trained and equipped to fight the kind of criminals we are facing," he said in an interview with Milenio television.
Milenio said 993 people have been killed so far in March, more than in any other month in the last 3 1/2 years.
Also Monday, authorities announced the capture of a suspect in the March 13 slaying of three people attached to the U.S. Consulate in the border city of Ciudad Juarez.
Enrique Torres, spokesman for the joint police-military command that controls Ciudad Juarez, said the army, acting on information from the FBI, detained a leader of the Barrio Azteca gang.
Two U.S. citizens, Lesley A. Enriquez, a consular officer, and her husband, Arthur H. Redelfs, were killed on their way home from a children's birthday party in Ciudad Juarez.
Jorge Alberto Salcido, the husband of another consular officer, was killed about the same time after leaving the same birthday event.
Sanchez is a news assistant in The Times' Mexico City Bureau.