CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico: Suspected “hit teams” from Mexico’s powerful Juarez Cartel killed two Americans and a Mexican man linked to the US consulate in Ciudad Juarez in coordinated weekend shootings that marked an ominous turn in the drug war ravaging northern Mexico.
US officials said the two separate attacks on Saturday killed an American employee of the US consulate in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, her US husband and a co-worker’s Mexican husband.
The government of the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua identified the victims as US consular worker Lesley Enriquez, her American husband Redelfs Arthur Haycock and Mexican national Jorge Alberto Salcido Ceniceros.
Salcido Ceniceros was married to another employee of the US consulate here, Mexican authorities said.
There was no confirmation of the identities from the US side.
In a press release, the Chihuahua government said that based on the information exchanged between Mexican and US federal agencies, it was established that the investigation will focus on hitmen “belonging to a gang known as ‘The Aztecas,'” which works for the Juarez Cartel.
No motive for the killings was suggested, but several prominent drug kingpins have been recently extradited by Mexico to the United States to stand trial.
Jesus Vicente Zambada-Niebla, son of Sinaloa Cartel chief Ismael “el Mayo” Zambada-Garcia, appeared last month in a Chicago court on drug trafficking charges.
Meanwhile, Miguel Caro Quintero, a brother of another notorious Mexican drug baron, Rafael Caro Quintero, was sentenced earlier by a federal judge in Colorado to 17 years in jail.
The US Congress has approved some 1.3 billion dollars for Mexico under the regional three-year Merida Initiative, a joint plan to fight organized crime.
The victims came under fire in separate locations after attending the same social event earlier Saturday, according to a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The slain couple was traveling with their infant daughter, who was in the back seat of the car and survived the attack unharmed, the US official said.
In the second attack, a Mexican employee of the consulate was following her husband and two children in a separate car, when her husband’s vehicle came under fire, killing him and wounding the two children, the official said.
“Both families had attended the same social event earlier in the afternoon off-post away from the consulate,” the US official said. “It has not been determined if the victims were specifically targeted.”
The killings, condemned as “brutal” by President Barack Obama, prompted the State Department to authorize US staff in six consulates along the US-Mexican border to send their dependants home for safety.
In a travel warning, the State Department asked US citizens to “delay unnecessary travel” to parts of Durango, Coahuila and Chihuahua states.
“While millions of US citizens safely visit Mexico each year … violence in the country has increased,” the State Department warned.
“Drug cartels and associated criminal elements have retaliated violently against individuals who speak out against them or whom they otherwise view as a threat to their organizations,” the statement read.
Obama said in a statement that he was “deeply saddened and outraged by the news of the brutal murders.”
And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered her “deepest sympathies” to the families of those slain.
“These appalling assaults on members of our own State Department family are, sadly, part of a growing tragedy besetting many communities in Mexico,” she said in a statement.
“They underscore the imperative of our continued commitment to work closely with the Government of President (Felipe) Calderon to cripple the influence of trafficking organizations at work in Mexico.”
Ciudad Juarez, population 1.3 million, is a major hub for smuggling illegal drugs into the United States. It is directly across the border from El Paso, Texas.
More than 2,600 people were murdered in Ciudad Juarez in 2009 in drug-related violence.
The war between rival drug cartels to control major border crossing points, as well as the government’s attempt to crack down on the cartels, has killed more than 15,000 people across Mexico over the last three years, according to government figures.