MEXICO CITY -- The violent death of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo -- accidentally caught in a hail of cross fire between rival drug gangs in Guadalajara Monday night -- has shaken this country into recognizing a climb in violence approaching the levels in Colombia and South Central Los Angeles.
Mexico has for decades been a point of shipment for drugs traveling from South America to the United States. More than 70 percent of the narcotics that enter the United States pass through Mexico, say U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officials here.
But now, say those officials, there is increasing competition among Mexican gangs to profit from the shipment of cocaine across Mexican borders.
Microcosm of Latin America
"What we are seeing in Mexico now is a microcosm of what has been happening for years in the rest of Latin America," said Bill Ruzzamenti, spokesman of the DEA in Washington. "There are a growing number of organizations and cartels involved in the traffic of narcotics and because of the profits involved they have become violent.
"These gangs have started turning on each other," he added, "and what happens then is that innocent people get in their way."
Cardinal Ocampo is the most recent and most stunning of these victims.
The 66-year-old cardinal was shot more than a dozen times in the chest Monday afternoon at the airport in Guadalajara, Mexico's second largest city. As his car arrived, several men emerged from the airport firing semi-automatic weapons. Six other people, including the cardinal's driver, were killed in the gun battle.
The death drew condemnation and outrage among politicians and the clergy as the overwhelmingly Catholic country mourned the death of one of its only two cardinals.
"It is not right that our land be stained with the blood of the innocent," said Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, in a news conference after his arrival in Guadalajara to visit the cathedral where the cardinal's body was taken for a Mass. "The competent authorities will act with the firmness that this act demands. This act deserves the condemnation of the entire country."
Television reports showed the cardinal slumped over dead in his car and crowds of people running frantically out of the airport, which is guarded by plainclothes police officers.
Police detain two people
Yesterday, droves of people flocked to the Metropolitan Cathedral to see the cardinal's body and mourn his death. He was widely adored as an advocate for the poor. Only a week ago he stood in his pulpit and denounced the growing violence in Mexico and its links with the drug trade.
At least two people were detained for questioning about the airport gunfight, but no more details about the reasons for the violence were available. And because of a new rule issued by the nation's attorney general, no officials of that office were available to make statements to the press.
This is not the first time the Salinas government has been forced to answer questions about what it is doing to protect its citizens and foreign tourists from such indiscriminate drug violence.
In November, about three dozen men firing automatic weapons raided a disco in the west coast beach resort of Puerta Vallarta.
A Colorado woman visiting the Caribbean resort of Cancun died last month when she walked into an ambush of a Mexican drug lord by rival traffickers.
Last week, a gun battle by rival gangs in Nuevo Laredo, across the border from Texas, left at least one person dead and three wounded.
And in the mountains just south of Mexico City in February, 24 men were killed in an ambush by several gunmen armed with high-powered weapons. Residents blamed the attack on a feud between the families. But police officials suspect the issue fueling the feud was drugs.
Lucrative drug trade
The control of the drug trade has become increasingly lucrative in Mexico. DEA and Border Patrol officials say the competition has not led to an increase in skirmishes among their agents and traffickers.
"I don't think the traffickers want to declare an open war on U.S. federal officials," said Steve Kean, a spokesman for the Border Patrol in San Diego. "Usually their violence is confined among themselves."
Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City said that traffickers have stopped flying loads of drugs across Mexican airspace because too many of their loads were being detected by radar. Instead, the officials say, the traffickers are using planes to drop the drugs from the air into Mexico and then the cargo is loaded onto trucks or ships for transport to the United States.
Officials at crossings along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border report increases in drug seizures.
Doug Mosier, spokesman for the Border Patrol office in El Paso, Texas, said agents seized a record $347.6 million worth of drugs last year.
U.S. Embassy officials praised Mr. Salinas for responding quickly to these new tactics, saying that he has tripled Mexico's budget for anti-drug efforts. And they noted that the Northern Border Response Team, a group of 100 Mexican drug agents, has seized about 91 metric tons of cocaine since it was established ** in 1990.