ACAPULCO, Mexico – Police have identified an alleged hit man arrested on suspicion of taking part in a gunbattle that left six people dead and five wounded during a raging attack on the main boulevard in Acapulco’s tourist zone.
A federal police statement released early Thursday said Ernesto Antonio Rocha Reyes, 26, was carrying a high-powered assault rifle when authorities, searching for suspects after the attacks, caught him.
The statement said Reyes is an associate of Texas-born Edgar Valdez Villarreal, nicknamed “La Barbie,” who federal authorities believe is battling Hector Beltran Leyva for control of the Beltran Leyva cartel.
A mother and her 8-year-old child, a taxi driver and a federal police officer were among the dead Wednesday. At least three bystanders also died on the shootout, which occurred in broad daylight on the wide, palm-lined avenue, within sight of major hotels and the beach.
Drug gangs have staged shootouts in the city before, but seldom in broad daylight amid heavy traffic, and never with such a toll among uninvolved people.
Desperate motorists crashed their cars and apparently sought to drive over the median strip to escape the gunfire, which left at least a dozen vehicles riddled with bullet holes.
A mother and her 8-year-old child, a taxi driver and a federal police officer were among the dead, while two slain men may have been the targets of the gunmen who set off the carnage, authorities said. Five more people suffered wounds, but there was no information on their condition.
Police said the gunbattle started when “armed men traveling in several vehicles opened fire on the occupants of another vehicle,” killing both men. It was unclear why the men were targeted.
Police tried to intercept the gunmen’s vehicles.
“In their attempt to escape, the assailants opened fire on several private vehicles, killing three people, including a child,” federal police said in a statement.
City police said the 8-year-old girl died while being transported in an ambulance and her mother was killed. A policeman at the scene said the mother had apparently just picked her daughter up from school when they were caught in the hail of bullets.
While police officers may have tried to return fire, the area was littered with hundreds of shell casings from AK-47 assault rifles – a weapon used almost exclusively by Mexico’s drug cartels.
The battle caused a huge traffic jam on the busy Miguel Aleman Boulevard. The intersection where the shooting occurred marks the start of a strip where high-rise hotels alternate with open expanses of beach and is among the city’s most heavily traveled and best-known areas.
Drug violence has killed more than 22,700 people in Mexico since December 2006, but it has seldom touched the beach resorts and colonial cities favored by international visitors.
Acapulco, famous as in international getaway in the 1950s and ’60s, has become mainly a destination for Mexican tourists in recent decades.
The shooting came as Mexico’s tourism industry gradually recovers from a grim year in 2009. Tourism all but came to a halt last April as fear over the swine flu epidemic virtually paralyzed Mexico, forcing the closure of schools, restaurants and archaeological sites and restricted air travel to Mexico from some countries.
Mexico’s revenue from foreign tourism dropped to $11.3 billion, a 15 percent decrease from $13.3 billion in 2008, according to the Tourism Department, which also blamed the worldwide economic downturn as another factor.
In other violence, the Mexican army announced Wednesday that two soldiers and two gunmen died in a shootout in a northern Mexico area that has seen a recent spike in drug violence.
The army said soldiers patrolling in the border state of Nuevo Leon on Tuesday gave chase to six suspicious cars that crossed into neighboring Tamaulipas state, where a gunbattle ensued in the town of Comales.
An army statement said the fight also wounded three soldiers and several gunmen. It said 200 soldiers and two helicopters were deployed to the area to locate the assailants.
The northeastern states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, across from Texas, have seen a surge of violence in recent weeks that authorities blame on a fight between the Gulf cartel and the Zetas.