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Violence escalates as Mexico steps up war against drugs

MEXICO CITY -- Nobody wanted the job of police chief in Nuevo Laredo, a city on the US-Mexico border plagued by drug gangs and violence. Finally, Alejandro Dominguez, 52, a businessman and father of three, volunteered to take the post to help his besieged city. Two weeks ago, hours after being sworn in, Dominguez was assassinated by men firing assault rifles from a convoy of sports utility vehicles.

Last week, federal troops and police took over the city of 300,000 as the death toll reached 50 in an escalating drug war, and US Ambassador Antonio Garza Jr. warned of a ''rapidly degenerating situation along the border." The entire local police force was ordered off the streets after city officers engaged in a gun battle with federal investigative police that left one federal officer seriously wounded.

The human cost of Mexico's aggressive war on drug trafficking is skyrocketing as the country suffers through the worst barrage of drug-related violence in years. More than 600 people have been killed this year, often in remarkably bold and bloody executions, according to national press tallies and state-by-state crime reports.

Nuevo Laredo is just one hot spot in a grisly conflict that has spread nationwide. In recent months, a farmer in the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa was gunned down as he visited his parents' grave, and a father in Monterrey, in northern Mexico, was shot dead in front of his son in a video arcade. Authorities have found corpses with limbs chopped off and drums of acid they believe traffickers used to dissolve the bodies of their victims.

''The old code of killing in private -- settling underworld scores in private -- is off," said Ana Maria Salazar, a former Pentagon drug policy official who is now a political analyst in Mexico. ''Now they are killing in the streets, shopping centers, and restaurants."

While many victims of drug violence appear to have been involved in the illicit trade, such as members of rival gangs killed in shootouts, an increasing number are public servants who, like Dominguez, stood up to organized crime, government officials said.

Mexican authorities last week disclosed for the first time that 90 soldiers have been killed in drug-related violence since President Vicente Fox took office in December 2000, vowing a ''war without mercy" on Mexico's drug cartels. In addition, at least 65 agents of the Federal Investigative Agency have been killed since it was formed in 2002.

Some died in confrontations with drug dealers on city streets; others crashed in helicopters after traffickers shot them down or disabled them by stringing heavy cables across narrow valleys where opium poppies and marijuana grow.

In a recent interview, Fox likened Mexico's ''explosion of organized crime killing" to the Al Capone era in Chicago. ''It took years to get rid of the mafias, it took years to get rid of organized crime," he said. Fox said US and Mexican authorities were working jointly to confront criminals who control ''millions and millions and millions of dollars."

Federal officials said that frequently their enemies are not just the drug cartels but local police who have been corrupted by drug money. That problem has unleashed a growing battle between federal police officers, many of them trained by US law enforcement, and their local counterparts, underscored by the recent clash in Nuevo Laredo.

"It's evident that there are police forces that have been penetrated by organized crime," Fox spokesman Ruben Aguilar Valenzuela said Monday.

Over the past decade, numerous federal and state police officers, as well as soldiers, have also been implicated in drug trafficking.

Aguilar announced that hundreds of soldiers and federal agents had been ordered into areas racked by drug violence. He also called on US authorities to help stop the flow of weapons into Mexico. He said much of the high-powered weaponry and other technology used by the drug cartels is smuggled in from the United States.

Law enforcement officials trace the current violence to the Fox administration's arrests of 15 leaders of billion-dollar criminal organizations.

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