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The Krentz ranch sits in an area that has become a lucrative smuggling route for Mexican drug cartels.

“It’s a big deal. It’s something that could be a turning point here,” said Cochise County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Carol Capas. “People in the area are on heightened alert. They’re grief-stricken, saddened, and they’re extremely angry.”

Two years ago, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, said in a report that border gangs were becoming increasingly ruthless and had begun targeting rivals and federal, state and local police. ICE said the violence had risen dramatically as part of “an unprecedented surge.”

Last year, the Justice Department identified more than 200 U.S. cities in which Mexican drug cartels “maintain drug distribution networks or supply drugs to distributors” - up from 100 three years earlier.

The department’s National Drug Intelligence Center, in its 2010 drug threat assessment report, described the cartels as “the single greatest drug trafficking threat to the United States.” It said Mexican gangs had established operations in every area of the United States and were expanding into more rural and suburban areas.

The report noted that adding to the violence were assaults against U.S. law enforcement officers assigned to posts along the southwestern border. It said assaults against Border Patrol agents increased 46 percent from 752 incidents in fiscal 2007 to 1,097 incidents in fiscal 2008 - including the January 2008 killing of an agent by the automobile of a fleeing drug suspect and the fatal shooting of another agent in July 2009.

Although no arrests have been made in the Krentz killing, there has been an arrest in the Ciudad Juarez killings. The Mexican military detained a member of the Barrio Azteca gang, which works for the infamous Gulf drug cartel on both sides of the border. The suspect was identified as Ricardo Valles de la Rosa, 42, a resident of both Ciudad Juarez and El Paso.

Barrio Azteca is a U.S. prison gang that later found its roots in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez.

The Justice Department declined to comment on the Ciudad Juarez killings; the Department of Homeland Security did not return messages seeking comment.

The Mexican Embassy in Washington condemned the killings but did not respond to a follow-up request for comment about whether the Americans had been targeted intentionally. In a statement, it said the Mexican government would “work closely” with its U.S. counterparts “to track down those responsible for these killings so justice can be served.”

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration would not comment specifically on the case but said “the violence we have been seeing is a signpost of the success that our very courageous Mexican counterparts have had in attacking those drug-trafficking organizations.”

The drug rings “are acting like caged animals because they are caged,” said DEA spokesman Rusty Payne. “They have lost roots, and they have lost control. The Mexican government has gone after them, and this is the reaction from drug organizations that are in disarray.”

On March 14, the State Department issued its strongest travel warning to date for U.S. citizens planning on traveling to Mexico. The department also approved the departure of the dependents of U.S. personnel from consulates in the northern Mexican border cities of Tijuana, Nogales, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Monterey and Matamoros.

It warned that the cartels are using automatic weapons and grenades, that “large firefights” have taken place in towns and cities across Mexico and that public shootouts have taken place during daylight hours in shopping centers and other public venues.

The department said drug criminals have followed and harassed U.S. citizens traveling in their vehicles, that travelers on major highways have been targeted for robbery and violence and that others have been caught in incidents of gunfire between criminals and Mexican law enforcement.

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