Car Bomb Escalates Mexico Drug War

Less than a week after a car bomb killed three people in Mexico's northern border city of Juarez, cartels are threatening more attacks. The car bomb marks an escalation in Mexico's war on narco-traffickers. Some observers are calling it the "Colombianization" of Mexico.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly. A car bombing in the Mexican border city of Juarez is reverberating throughout Mexico. The explosion was the first of its kind in Mexico's drug war and indicates a new level of sophistication to the violence that's plaguing the country.

This year is on track to be the deadliest year yet, since President Calderon declared war in the cartels more than three years ago. NPR's Jason Beaubien has just returned from Juarez and he's on the line now from Mexico City.

Hi, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Good morning.

KELLY: So I understand you got to go and actually see the scene where this car bomb went off. Tell us what you saw. What happened?

BEAUBIEN: It's interesting. There was a TV cameraman who'd actually rushed to the scene of what was essentially a trap that the cartels had set for the police and had been there and been able to capture the actual explosion when the car blew up. And I'd seen that footage before I arrived.

The footage is really dramatic. You see the actual car explode. You see the people rushing in afterwards. But the scope of it just is lacking. And when you get there and you start walking around and you see how from this intersection in all four directions windows are blown up. Even people who had metal doors that were bolted down, they had damage behind there.

It was really a powerful bomb.

KELLY: Do we know anything more about the type of explosives they used or how they actually managed to pull this off?

BEAUBIEN: Early on the military was saying it was C-4. It was 10 kilos of C-4. They backed off from that and said it wasn't C-4. It's something like C-4. Essentially, though, we're talking about a fairly sophisticated explosive. It was set off with a cell phone.

This wasn't just, you know, some firecrackers wrapped around a gas can. This was something that someone had some training in and it was clear that they knew how to use it and used it quite effectively as a weapon against the police.

KELLY: And you said this was a trap? How exactly did that work?

BEAUBIEN: Essentially what happened was a call came into the Mexican equivalent of 911 that there was a police officer who'd been shot. And so other police rushed to the scene. Well, it turned out that there was a man who was in a police officer's uniform who'd already been shot and had been dumped at the scene right next to the car that was about to explode.

When the police and the paramedics surrounded it, someone called in directly to the bomb, made it go off and it blew up. So it was definitely targeting the police, and it was definitely a trap that was set by the cartel.

The Juarez cartel claimed responsibility for it a bit later that day, saying that this was in retaliation for the arrest earlier in the day of one of their top leaders.

KELLY: You know, Jason, Mexico is not a place that comes to mind when you think about car bombs. What are people saying? How are Mexicans reacting to this?

BEAUBIEN: This has really ramped things up to a whole new level. I went and talked to store managers, customers who had been in that area at the time, people that worked there. And even in Juarez, which is a place that is the murder capital of Mexico, that has been the epicenter of this drug war, people there are saying that this is bringing the fear to a whole new level.

And it's not just in Juarez. Also, you know, when I got back here, taxi drivers are talking about it. They're saying, you know, what is going on there? It's just unbelievable that in Mexico you're now seeing cars exploding in the streets and being used as weapons.

There's definitely a sense that this was a turning point in an already very, very vicious war and in a war in which the cartels have already used military tactics. When they're attacking a target, one vehicle will cut off the target, other vehicles will surround it, shoot everyone in the vehicle and disappear in a military-style operation. Well, this shows that they can carry out other military-style operations, and unfortunately quite effectively.

KELLY: Grim news there. All right, Jason, thanks very much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

KELLY: That's NPR's Jason Beaubien reporting.

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