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Saturday, 21 February 2009

Felipe Carrillo Puerto elementary school epicenter of a two-hour gun-and-grenade battle

Felipe Carrillo Puerto elementary school in this bustling border city was open as usual Friday, but fears of gangland violence kept all but a handful of its 960 students at home.The low-walled school compound was at the epicenter of a two-hour gun-and-grenade battle this week between Mexican troops and drug gang gunmen — a terrifying episode that served to illustrate how Mexico’s gangland violence touches even its youngest, most vulnerable citizens.“We’re going to see Monday how many students show up,” said teacher Luis Enrique Mora, 32. “Many are going to be traumatized. They’re never going to forget.”Reynosa, across the Rio Grande from the McAllen area, is home to scores of foreign-owned manufacturing plants and the Gulf Cartel, one of Mexico’s most powerful gangs. But the city has been relatively peaceful until just recently.“Criminality has always existed here, but we’ve never experienced it like this before,” said Martha Aguirre, 61, the principal of the Carrillo Puerto school. “You can’t tell when something like this will happen, because the bad men feel they are lords of the streets.”Since taking office in December 2006, President Felipe Calderon of Mexico has deployed more than 40,000 soldiers and paramilitary police against narcotics smuggling gangs. About 9,000 people have been killed in gangland violence since then, including 80 soldiers and 500 police.Tuesday’s shootout in the school’s upscale neighborhood started about 10 a.m., shortly before recess, when federal police stopped an SUV nearby and the gunmen inside opened fire. As police moved in on a house where they believed they would find a gang leader, other gunmen fired indiscriminately in the streets, presumably to divert attention. Army and gangland reinforcements swooped in. The battle escalated.The school’s 20 teachers ordered the children to the classroom floors, shoving upturned desks against walls and doors in hopes of stopping stray bullets. “We were all crying. We were so afraid,” said Andrea, a 9-year-old third-grader who came to school Friday. “They could kill us all.”Grenades exploded in the street. Bullets tore through the school’s windows, lodged in the benches near the front gate where children wait to be picked up by their parents.“I just kept praying that grenades wouldn’t explode inside the school grounds,” Mora, the teacher, said. “I was just thinking of calming the children.”Dozens of soldiers poured onto the school patio as the fighting moved a few blocks away to a parking lot of a shopping center that includes an H-E-B supermarket and a Chili’s restaurant.
None of the children at the school was harmed.Federal officials say five gunmen were killed and seven injured. Press reports said five federal policemen also died, but the government said only seven officers were injured and one civilian killed.“Those of us living all of this up close feel protected by the army,” said Aguirre, the principal. Not everyone agrees. Demonstrations against the army blocked international bridges Tuesday in Reynosa and other cities bordering Texas and shut downtown streets in Monterrey, 120 miles south of the border.Mexican officials and many residents of Reynosa dismiss such protests as paid for by the gangsters themselves. During a speech in Monterrey on Thursday, Calderon accused the protesters of treason.“We are living a defining moment,” he said. “Mexico confronts a historic challenge to become a secure country, a challenge to truly transform itself into a country of law and order.“Mexicans must close ranks in our army’s struggle against the common enemy.”



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