By Alfredo Corchado
The Dallas Morning News
MEXICO CITY, Mexico (MCT) — Introducing a lethal new element to Mexico’s drug wars, a leading cartel detonated a car bomb late Thursday in downtown Ciudad Juarez, and raised the specter of Middle East-style terrorism along the border with Texas.
The attack, which followed the arrest of a top gang member, targeted two police cars in Juarez, killing two federal officers and a musician and injuring 11 people, including several bystanders.
The Juarez cartel quickly took responsibility for the attack and warned in a hand-painted message that "more car bombs" are ready for detonation unless federal police stop siding with the rival Sinaloa cartel, an allegation the group has made repeatedly over the years and which the government denies.
Initially, federal and local officials downplayed the significance of the attack, the attorney general said there was no still evidence of "narcoterrorism" in Mexico, but other experts said it represented a clear escalation of the threat level.
"We’re seeing a gradual escalation, with every indication that the intent of terrorism is there," said Alberto Islas, a security consultant in Mexico City. "The cost of terrorism has come down, and technology is available to everyone, especially when your customs agents are ineffective in stopping material from coming in.
"The bomb was meant as a sign of force, a way to undermine the state and to terrorize the population," Islas said. "If that’s not terrorism, what is?"
Experts expressed skepticism that any cartel has gained the capability to construct a bomb with the capacity to cause widespread destruction. Nonetheless, the continued efforts by the cartels to raise the stakes in the fighting suggests a "likelihood that civilians will become collateral damage," according to Stratfor, an Austin-based security company.
Eduardo Zarate, the top military commander in Ciudad Juarez, said the car bomb contained up to 22 pounds of explosives and had been activated by cell phone. Zarate said investigators were trying to determine whether someone had been driving the vehicle at the time of the explosion or whether it had been parked.
A secondary explosion also occurred, apparently when the gas tank ignited, authorities said.
The attack followed the arrest of an alleged high-ranking lieutenant in the Juarez cartel, Jesus "El 35" Armando Acosta Guerrero. He is alleged to be a key member of the group’s operations in the Juarez area, with a role in attacks on Mexican security forces, kidnappings, drug trafficking and extortion schemes.
The Juarez cartel, in affiliation with a group known as La Linea, is fighting the Sinaloa cartel, which is led by Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, one of Mexico’s most wanted drug traffickers and one of the world’s wealthiest men, according to the Forbes magazine.
The Juarez cartel, led by Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, has long accused the federal government of taking bribes from both sides but colluding with the Sinaloa cartel, a charge the government denies.
In Mexico City, Attorney General Arturo Chavez Chavez said early Friday that he was not prepared to declare the attack an act of terrorism.
"We don’t have any evidence in the country of narcoterrorism as it has occurred in other countries," Chavez said.
Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz also downplayed the significance of the attack, saying it had not been directed at civilians.
"This has been a war between the two groups of organized crime fighting for the city," he said. "The groups have also been attacking the police. Luckily it’s been limited to the police or the members of those two groups of organized crime. We don’t have any information that leads us to believe any attacks are going to be made on the population itself."
But other authorities said the attack marks a new level of violence in a country where the scale and frequency of violence has been mind-numbing, including multiple mass killings at drug rehab centers and sophisticated attacks on security authorities.
According to the federal government, more then 24,800 people have been killed in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderon deployed the military against the cartels in December 2006.
Much of the violence has taken place along the border with Texas, and Ciudad Juarez has been the epicenter, with more than 6,000 killings since violence there escalated sharply in January 2008.
Juarez, already on edge, faced a darker reality on Friday as residents took stock of the growing threat.
Accountant Miguel Angel Saldivar described feeling the explosion from his office two blocks away.
"The entire office shook," he said Friday. "I could feel the whole vibration. It felt very strong."
Alfredo Quijano, editor of the newspaper Norte de Ciudad Juarez, gave a grim assessment.
"What more can we expect? The escalation will increase," he said. "It started off as a turf battle among addicts, then gangs fighting for routes. Now we’re entering a new phase where the cartels will use everything they have to terrorize our community and show how ineffective the federal police is, both operationally and in terms of intelligence gathering. Things will get worst."
Angela Kocherga, Border Bureau chief for Belo Television, contributed to this report from Ciudad Juarez.
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