During its nearly four-year crackdown on major drug trafficking organizations, the Mexican government has repeated the mantra that most of the nearly 30,000 people killed have some association with the illicit trade.
But in the span of a week, a devastating wave of attacks has killed dozens of civilians, rattled a public not easily shocked anymore and forced the government to concede that innocents are being swept up in the violence.
In the latest attacks, gunmen killed four people early Thursday and injured 14 when they fired on three buses carrying workers home from a late shift at a manufacturing plant near Ciudad Juárez. The authorities said the assault — on workers from one of the large so-called maquiladoras, or factories, on and near the border that have fueled an economic and population boom there — had no precedent.
“This attack on the employees was a high-impact event that seeks to destabilize governments,” said Adrián Sánchez, spokesman for the Ciudad Juárez police. “They are fighting over their own interests, and only the bad guys know what it is about.”
The buses bore the name of the company where the employees worked, Eagle Ottawa, an automobile upholstery manufacturer based in Auburn Hills, Mich., that has two plants in Ciudad Juárez.
Jorge González Nicolás, an assistant prosecutor in Ciudad Juárez, told a radio interviewer that it appeared the attackers were searching for an unknown man and opened fire indiscriminately, similar to an attack at a birthday party last week that left 14 young people dead and the apparent target on the run.
Bus operators transporting workers have faced extortion demands recently, but it was not clear if the police were looking into that as a motive. Officials at Eagle Ottawa did not respond to requests for comment.
In a separate attack, seven young people were gunned down Thursday in a working-class neighborhood in Mexico City. The police had not determined a motive or whether it was linked to organized crime, but the city has long feared that mass violence would reach here.
The two attacks followed three massacres in different parts of the country since Friday, all in a year of brazen tactics, including car bombs and the assassination of several mayors.
Determining patterns in the drug war is difficult. At least seven major trafficking organizations, and their various splinter groups as they break apart and re-form, are vying for territory and supremacy.
“As the organized crime groups are pressured by the government and in a sense the military strategy, as people are arrested and drugs taken away, you are going to see internal strife and intergroup competition over the market,” said Allyson Benton, an analyst with Eurasia Group, which advises businesses on the political and security climate.
The recent loss of innocent lives has heightened the anxiety in the country and seemed to buttress statements by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that the cartel violence was taking on shades of terrorism and teetering toward the strife of Colombia in the 1990s.
Her remarks initially ruffled diplomatic feathers, and government officials fired back with a barrage of figures they contended showed how much worse Colombia was then in terms of violence and political infiltration.
The administration of President Felipe Calderón has not shown signs of shifting tactics. Rather, his aides believe the problem is that his message — that the violence is a sign that progress is being made — has not been delivered well. There has been a shake-up in his communication staff to improve it.
One sign: Mr. Calderón struck a conciliatory tone this week toward the victims, including drug addicts — a large number of victims in two of the massacres — whom he commended for trying to improve their lives.
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