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Murder of US Consulate Workers in Mexico Signals New Phase in Violence

In the city of Juarez, Mexico, gunmen murdered 19 people this past weekend, including two U.S. citizens associated with the American consulate in the border city across from El Paso, Texas. The killing of the Americans has raised concerns that Mexican drug cartels might now be targeting Americans in retaliation for U.S. cooperation with the Mexican government's war on organized crime.

On Saturday, gunmen apparently followed two cars leaving a child's birthday party in Juarez. Two of the victims, a married couple, both of whom were U.S. citizens, were attacked in front of city hall. Their uninjured baby was found in a car seat in the back of the car. The other victim, a Mexican citizen who worked at the U.S. consulate, was murdered at about the same time at another location.

Killings are common in Juarez, which is recognized internationally as the most dangerous city outside of a war zone. But this is the first time that gunmen seem to have targeted U.S. citizens or people associated with U.S. diplomatic missions.

Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical intelligence for Austin, Texas-based analysis firm Stratfor, says the killings might have been related to a recently announced U.S. plan to increase cooperation with Mexican law enforcement agencies.

"We believe that it is likely related to a decision last month to start working more closely with the Mexican government by the Americans," said Scott Stewart. "They were going to put some personnel into a joint fusion center in Juarez."

The people killed were not high-ranking U.S. officials and there is no indication that they had anything to do with law enforcement. But Stewart says they might have been killed simply because they were easy targets.

"One of the things we see in terrorist attacks as well [is that] many times they cannot get to the target they require or desire," he said. "But they will go and divert to a secondary target who is more vulnerable."

The U.S. State Department has called on its diplomatic workers in Mexican border cities to send their families home as violence continues to rage across the northern part of the country.

Mexico political expert George Grayson, author of the new book Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State? says that is a wise move.

"Any way you slice it [certainly], the border is going to become increasingly dangerous," said George Grayson. "And even though, up to now, the [illegal drug] cartels have not focused on foreigners - [they] certainly have not focused on Americans - one can never tell when their tactics will change."

Grayson, who teaches at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, makes frequent trips to Mexico and says part of the problem might be that the Mexican military is losing its effectiveness against the wealthy and heavily armed illegal drug cartels.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon has used the military as his principal agent in carrying out the war against drug gangs he initiated after taking office in 2006.

But the Mexican constitution does not allow the use of the army for police work and analyst George Grayson says many Mexicans complain of abuses.

"There is unrest in the streets and there is also concern in the military that they have been given a role that they are really not prepared to play," he said. "And yet, they are also being criticized around the world by non-governmental organizations for human rights abuses."

But the military and a few units of elite federal police are Mr. Calderon's only assets in the fight against the powerful drug cartels. And the U.S. government is faced with the question of how deeply involved it should be in Mexico's operations.

In 1985, when a drug gang tortured and killed U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique "Kiki" Camerena near Guadalajara, Mexico, the U.S. government put a great deal of pressure on Mexico to bring the killers to justice.

Stratfor's Scott Stewart wonders whether that will happen again.

"That is the critical question we are looking at right now, whether or not these killings will steel U.S. resolve or whether they will cause the U.S. to back off," he said. "If we look at the historical precedent with the Kiki Camerena case in Mexico back in 1985, it really caused the DEA to focus on dismantling that organization and becoming very aggressive and active. And it will be interesting to see whether we have that effect now."

U.S. President Barack Obama has condemned the killings in Juarez and vowed to continue U.S. efforts to help to "break the power of the drug trafficking organizations that operate in Mexico." He says the responsibility for fighting the drug traffickers must be shouldered by both nations.