NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico – Mexican soldiers battled gunmen in two cities across the border from Texas on Wednesday, prompting panicked parents to pull children from school and factories to warn workers to stay inside. Assailants in a third city threw a grenade at an army barracks.
The U.S. Consulate in Nuevo Laredo warned American citizens to stay indoors. The statement said there were reports of drug gangs blocking at least one intersection near the consulate in the city across from Laredo, Texas.
The local city government and witnesses reported several more blockades — a new tactic that has emerged in northeastern Mexico, where violence has soared this year amid a split between the Gulf and Zetas drug gangs.
Cartel gunmen frequently use stolen cars and buses to form roadblocks during battles with soldiers. Witnesses in Nuevo Laredo said gunmen forced people from their cars to use the vehicles in the blockades.
Shootouts also erupted in Reynosa, across from McAllen, causing a huge traffic jam in the highway connecting the city with Monterrey and Matamoros.
The local governments of Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo warned residents to stay inside through a series of Twitter and Facebook messages.
By the evening, the Nuevo Laredo government said in a Twitter message that the "situation of risk" had ended, and most of the vehicles blocking the roads had been removed.
The city government also said federal authorities reported no fatalities, but it was unclear if anyone was injured. Officials at the press office of the Mexican Defense Department said they had no immediate information on the shootouts.
Witnesses and reporters at the scene said four shootouts erupted in Nuevo Laredo, including one behind a Walmart store near a residential area.
Bullet casings from assault rifles littered the scene, and at least one house and two cars had bullet holes. Apolinar Rodriguez, a resident of the neighborhood, said he thought he heard grenade blasts.
"They are fighting with everything they have," he said.
Parents rushed to schools to pick up their children. Factory managers at one industrial parked closed their gates, ordered their workers not to leave and canceled night shifts.
"We were not allowed to leave for two-and-a-half hours," said Eva Lara, a worker at one factory.
Meanwhile, assailants hurled a grenade at military barracks in Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville. A Red Cross worker, who asked not to be named for security reasons, said four adults were injured, none seriously. He said they were treated inside the barracks.
Mexico's northeastern border with Texas has become one of the most violent fronts in an increasingly bloody drug war.
Shootouts in the middle of cities erupted frequently, and in the most horrifying attack, 72 migrants were massacred near Matamoros in August, apparently because they refused to work for the Zetas. Several mayors and the leading gubernatorial candidate for Tamaulipas state — where Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros are located — have been assassinated.
In Ciudad Juarez, a 21-year-old Texas National Guard soldier was reportedly one of two men killed Wednesday.
Spokesman Arturo Sandoval of the Chihuahua state attorney general's office says family members identified the soldier as 21-year-old Jose Gil Hernandez of El Paso. The identity of the other man was not available, and details on the incident were sketchy.
A message left with FBI El Paso spokesman Michael Martinez was not immediately returned. However, he told the El Paso Times that Hernandez was shot about 1 p.m. Wednesday in the Colonia Revolucion Mexicana in Ciudad Juarez. Martinez told the newspaper that the FBI and the Army's Criminal Investigation Division were trying to verify the details of the shooting.
Nationwide, more than 28,000 people have been killed in drug gang violence since December 2006, when President Felipe Calderon deployed soldiers to battle the cartels in their strongholds in northern Mexico and along the Pacific coast.