Forensic workers load a truck with bodies after gunmen stormed into a bar… (Hans Maximo Musielik, AP )
Reporting from Mexico City — Gunmen targeting a rival drug cartel opened fire in a crowded bar in the northern city of Monterrey, killing at least 20 people and wounding several, authorities said Saturday.
The attack occurred late Friday in the Sabino Gordo bar in downtown Monterrey, a prosperous and once-orderly industrial hub that has been buffeted by more than a year of fighting between the Zetas, known as the country's most violent drug gang, and the Gulf cartel.
Authorities said most of the dead — four of them women — were bar employees. Mexican news reports said the toll rose to 21 after a wounded man died in a hospital.
The attack may have stemmed from a dispute over narcotics sales at the bar, officials said.
"The most probable line that we're following is that it was a direct attack against the establishment, rather than against the people who were enjoying themselves there," Jorge Domene, security spokesman for Nuevo Leon state, said in a television interview.
Monterrey, Mexico's richest city, was once known as a peaceful if uninspiring factory town. But the drug violence has turned it into something more like a Wild West outpost, with gun battles in the streets, brazen kidnappings and frequent slayings of police officers in outlying communities.
Some have expressed worry that if Monterrey is lost to violence, so is all of Mexico.
The government of President Felipe Calderon launched an aggressive, military-led campaign against drug traffickers in late 2006, a drive accompanied by furious fighting between drug gangs. About 40,000 people have died.
The latest carnage wasn't limited to Monterrey. In the northern state of Coahuila, next door to Nuevo Leon, the decapitated bodies of seven men and three women were found around the city of Torreon. The killings were attributed to clashes between the Zetas and traffickers based to the west, in the state of Sinaloa.
Also, 11 bodies turned up in the municipality of Valle de Chalco, in the central state of Mexico, outside Mexico City, in an attack believed linked to crime groups.
In the western state of Michoacan, federal police in recent days have battled hit men from a faction of the splintering La Familia gang. On Saturday, the government deployed 1,800 more federal officers to the crime-torn state.
The spate of bloodletting prompted Calderon's public safety spokesman, Alejandro Poire, to call a rare Saturday news conference to defend the government's strategy.
Poire said the violence was caused by "absurd" rivalries between criminal groups and not the crackdown, which faces rising public criticism as the toll climbs.
"The violence is not going to slow down by dropping the fight against criminals," he said.