MEXICO CITY - More Americans in Mexico are falling victim to a wave of drug violence sweeping the country, a change driven home by the recent killing of a U.S. Consulate employee and her husband who were gunned down after leaving a children's birthday party.
The number of U.S. citizens killed in Mexico has more than doubled to 78 in 2009 from 37 in 2007, according to the U.S. State Department's annual count. No figures were available for the first two months of 2010.
While only some of the killings are specifically listed as "executions" or "drug-related," the rise in homicides seems to be related to drug battles. In Ciudad Juárez, the northern border city hardest hit by drug violence and where the consulate worker was killed, homicides of Americans rose to 23 in 2009 from two in 2007.
The annual murder rate for the estimated 500,000 American citizens in Mexico at any one time has risen - but still remains lower than in some U.S. cities: about 15 per 100,000.
American deaths make up only a tiny fraction of Mexico's 17,900 drug-related killings since December 2006, when President Felipe Calderon launched a military-led drug war.
Yesterday, a clash among armed men left eight people dead in the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa. The bodies of seven men were found in two cars along a highway connecting the cities of Culiacán and Mazatlan, and an eighth victim, dressed in a fake federal police uniform and holding a grenade, was found near the cars, a Sinaloa prosecutors' spokesman said.
The government says the majority of those killed were involved in the drug trade. But an increasing number of bystanders are dying in the crossfire, and Americans are among them.
Other Americans appear to have been specifically targeted.
U.S. anti-kidnapping expert Felix Batista was abducted by gunmen in 2008 in the northern city of Saltillo, where he had gone to advise local businessmen on how to avoid becoming victims of the country's wave of kidnappings. He hasn't been found.
FBI officials are aiding Mexican authorities in the investigation into the March 13 killings of U.S. consular employee Lesley A. Enriquez, 35, who was four months pregnant, and her husband, Arthur H. Redelfs, 34.
They were gunned down in their SUV on a Ciudad Juárez street as they were leaving the birthday party of a child of a U.S. Consulate employee. Their 7-month-old daughter was found wailing in the back of the vehicle.
Ciudad Juárez Mayor Jose Reyes doesn't believe the victims were targeted because of their U.S. ties. "I do not think this was a message to the consulate," he said.
But Enriquez's cousin Vicky Torres says: "It's a message for the United States, like a challenge: 'Don't you mess around, you Americans, because this will happen.' "