ALTAR, Mexico â€” Very few residents dare to drive on one of the roads out of this watering-hole for migrants, fearing they will be stopped at gunpoint. They worry they will be told to turn around after their gas tanks are drained or, worse, be kidnapped or killed.
A shootout that left 21 people dead and six wounded on the road last week is the most gruesome sign that a relatively tranquil pocket of northern Mexico is quickly turning into a hotbed of drug-fueled violence on Arizona’s doorstep. The violence in recent months is grist for supporters of the state’s tough new law against illegal immigration, who are eager to portray the border as a lawless battlefield of smugglers both of drugs and humans.
Nogales, the main city in the region, which shares a border with the Arizona city of the same name, has had 131 murders so far this year, nearly surpassing 135 for all of 2009, according to a tally by the newspaper Diario de Sonora. That includes two heads found Thursday stuffed side by side between the bars of a cemetery fence.
The carnage still pales compared to other Mexican border cities, most notably Ciudad Juarez, which lies across from El Paso, Texas, which had 2,600 murders last year. But the increase shows that some small cattle-grazing towns near Nogales are now in the grip of drug traffickers who terrorize residents.
The violence is concentrated in a few villages in the mountainous desert area of Rio Altar, which, until recently, drew tourists for its handsome churches, its river, a tilapia-filled lake and cooler temperatures. The roads wind through mountains of mesquite trees and saguaro cactus.
That’s where Thursday’s pre-dawn shootout occurred, just 12 miles (19 kilometers) south of the border, on a deserted stretch between the villages of Tubutama and Saric. Eight vehicles and numerous weapons were found in what authorities described as a confrontation between rival gangs competing for drug and immigration routes into the U.S.
The windows and panels of some vehicles were painted with X’s in white shoe polish, said Fernando Pompa, a police officer in Altar who visited the scene. Bullet casings littered the pavement.
The territory is disputed between Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who heads the Sinaloa cartel, and the Beltran Leyva cartel, whose leader, Arturo Beltran Leyva, was killed in a shootout last December with Mexican marines in Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City.
Locals trace the wave of violence to the arrest in February of Jose Vazquez Villagrana, nicknamed “El Jaibil,” or “The Wild Boar.” Vazquez, reported to be an ally of Guzman, was captured by federal police in the nearby town of Santa Ana.
Many people have fled in the last few months, said one resident whose family has longtime roots in a village near the shootings. He asked that his only his first name, Luis, be published because he fears for his safety. His relatives abandoned their homes this spring to join him in a larger city where he lives.
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