A major shootout between rival drug gangs has killed 19 people in the northern Mexico border state of Chihuahua, officials say.
The state prosecutors’ office said on Saturday that 18 corpses, two grenades, vehicles and guns were found at the scene of the clash in the hamlet of Chuchuichupa the township of Madera.
Two other men were found armed and wounded on the dirt road where the confrontation occurred late Friday. One died later at a hospital, and the other is in custody.
The office said police and soldiers had been sent to secure the area, where groups allied with the Sinaloa cartel have been fighting those aligned with the Juarez cartel.
In November, nine US-Mexican dual citizens from a Mormon community were ambushed and slain by suspected drug gang assassins in an area about 60 miles (100km) to the north of Friday’s clash. It was not clear if any of the same groups were involved in the two sets of killings.
The shootings come in the wake of Mexico’s bloodiest ever month, as March saw the country’s homicide rate race to a new record even as Covid-19 spread across the nation and authorities urged the population to stay home and practise social distancing.
Mexico registered 2,585 homicides in March – the highest monthly figure since records began in 1997 – putting 2020 on track to break last year’s record total for murders.
The surge in killings comes as federal and state officials put resources into containing the Covid-19 crisis and confront the prospect of an already sluggish economy falling even further – potentially deepening the misery for the more than 40% of the population living in poverty.
“It’s business as usual [for drug cartels] with a risk of further escalation, especially if at some point the armed forces are called away for pandemic control,” said Falko Ernst, senior Mexico analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Violence has flared throughout the country, but it has been especially intense in the central state of Guanajuato, where criminal groups have battled over lucrative territories rife with theft from pipelines.
The bloodshed has hit shocking levels in the city of Ceyala – home to a major automotive manufacturing plant – with gunmen engaging security forces in shootouts, blockading streets and torching businesses.