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CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) – Killings between rival drug cartels are rising again in Mexico’s most violent city despite a massive army deployment that temporarily slashed the murder rate on the U.S. border.

Drug gangsters in Ciudad Juarez who used to chase enemies in flashy black jeeps have lowered their profile but are still killing each other as 10,000 troops and federal police patrol the city, across the border from El Paso, Texas. “Criminals are taking a different approach, using pistols not assault weapons and driving around in small, old cars to reach their rivals, ditching their SUVs,” said army spokesman Enrique Torres. The government says the army has cut drug murders by up to 80 percent since soldiers arrived in March — but gangs killed 12 people on May 1 in one of the bloodiest days this year.

The 231 drug murders recorded in Ciudad Juarez in February dropped to 64 in March, the army says. But the number crept up to 81 in April and is already over 30 for the first week of May, according to police and media tallies. Mexico’s most-wanted man Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman is trying to drive out the Juarez cartel from the manufacturing city to control the prized smuggling route into the United States and dominate the lucrative local drug market, officials say.

One drug dealer, who gave his name as X, said the Juarez cartel and its wing of corrupt police known as La Linea (The Line) ordered foot soldiers to lay low so the army would leave. “They don’t want any military taking over their turf and they can see they are not leaving, so they are again fighting (their rivals),” he said in the scruffy downtown.

President Felipe Calderon has staked his presidency on crushing the gangs that killed 6,300 people last year across Mexico. The violence worries Washington, spilling into border cities like Phoenix and Tucson, and U.S. President Barack Obama  praised Calderon’s drug fight in a visit to Mexico last month. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told the U.S. Senate last week border violence was calming but also questioned how long the reduction would last. “Some (traffickers) have left (Ciudad Juarez). It is not a comfortable place for them but obviously the criminal infrastructure cannot shift its geography,” Mexico’s Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora told Reuters in an interview last week in Mexico City.

DEATH TOLL CLIMBS

Mexico’s drug war death toll is running at around 2,300 people this year, slightly higher than at the same point in 2008, even as the army makes historic seizures of weapons and cash and arrests top cartel leaders. As Mexico was distracted with the outbreak of H1N1 swine flu over the past two weeks, violence has continued.

Seven people were tied up in black plastic bags and thrown off a bridge in the southern state of Guerrero this month. Police believe the victims may have been alive when they were tossed because the bodies had no bullet wounds or bruises. In Tijuana, across from southern California, drug gangs killed seven police officers in less than an hour in coordinated attacks across the city on April 27. “We’re frightened of the lethal (flu) epidemic … but the power of organized crime is more dangerous and federal forces don’t seem to be able to stop or even inhibit it,” columnist Miguel Angel Granados wrote in Reforma daily last week.

The government insists it is winning against the well-armed drug gangs and that more violence is a sign of their weakness. It says it is ridding cities like Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez of corrupt police. “We have broken this relationship of impunity (between police and cartels),” Medina Mora said. Most Mexicans support Calderon’s decision to use the army despite complaints of rights abuses in Ciudad Juarez.

Last month, Monte Alejandro Rubido, who recently joined Calderon’s National Security Council as a technical director, told Mexican daily El Universal that Mexico will keep the army on the streets to fight the cartels until at least 2013. Baja California state police chief Daniel de la Rosa told Reuters he wants more soldiers in Tijuana and its surrounding towns, as 2,000 troops and federal police try to quell a bitter war between factions of the dominant Arellano Felix cartel.

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