HERMOSILLO, Mexico – The shooting deaths of seven men near the Mexico-Arizona border dramatize what appears to be an escalating use of the once-calm stretch of border as a drug trafficking corridor.
The seven men apparently were ambushed by rival drug traffickers in a rural area near Sonoyta, Mexico, close to the U.S. border crossing at Lukeville, Arizona, and their bodies were found inside a pickup truck Wednesday night, a day after the killings.
The crossing is frequently used by U.S. travelers to reach the Gulf of California beach town of Puerto Penasco.
Authorities said Thursday that an eighth man was found wounded on a hill, and he told state police the victims had just dropped off marijuana when gunmen opened fire with automatic rifles on their pickup truck.
All of the men are believed to have been from the state of Sinaloa, home of the drug cartel by the same name.
In December, Puerto Penasco was the scene of an hours-long gunbattle between drug cartel gunmen and federal police who were trying to detain Gonzalo Inzunza, a top lieutenant of the Sinaloa cartel.
Government Blackhawk helicopters opened fire on at least 10 vehicles trying to flee a luxury beach condo complex. No tourists or residents were injured, but five gunmen were killed.
Local officials denied that Inzunza operated out of the resort, but later federal police said Inzunza had "set up his center of operations in Puerto Penasco" to run drug-trafficking networks. Inzunza's body was not found at the scene, and federal officials said they believed the fleeing gunmen took his dead or wounded body with them, as cartel gunmen sometimes do with fallen gang members or leaders.
The resort is located in Sonora state, which has been relatively free of the drug violence that has plagued other northern border states. The Sinaloa cartel may have chosen the Sonora-Arizona area as a base because other border areas are under the control of rival cartels or feeling the effects of government crackdowns.
Raul Benitez, a security expert at Mexico's National Autonomous University, said that "Puerto Penasco is an area with a lot of movement, a lot of traffic, and it's perfect for setting up a corridor to sell cocaine, heroin or marijuana and ship it into the United States." As the Mexican government tries to shut off the other big corridors in Texas and California, Benitez noted , "The Sonora corridor was the one left for the Sinaloa cartel."
However, it now appears some other gang is also trying to move in on the corridor, or defend it against the Sinaloa cartel's incursion.
Law enforcement officials have not said which gangs they believe were involved in this week's killings.