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“There’s no way the Mexicans are prepared for it,” said Eric Olson, a senior associate at the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. “I hate to say it but the cartels seem to have no limits to the violence and terrible things they are willing to do.”

Olson said the best way for federal police to confront this new threat would be to improve their intelligence capabilities — an area he called a serious weakness.

“It requires operational intelligence. It requires ‘We know this is going to happen or likely is going to happen in this neighborhood,’” he said. “That kind of refined intelligence is extremely difficult anywhere. But it doesn’t seem to be available in a place like Ciudad Juarez.”

The cartels, on the other hand, “have an amazing intelligence capability,” he said. “They are far ahead of law enforcement. All that keeps law enforcement from getting ahead of the curve.”

Mexican cartels — armed with billions of dollars and networks of informers among corrupt police forces — have long demonstrated their ability to target the highest-ranking security officials and government officials.

Last month, cartel gunmen killed 12 federal police in the western state of Michoacan. A jailed suspect later described the carefully planned ambush to police, making it clear the gang knew exactly where the police patrol was going to be and when.

And in another first, suspected cartel gunmen assassinated two candidates during campaigning last month for local and state elections, including the leading contender for governor of the northern border state of Tamaulipas. Never before had drug gangs killed such a high-ranking electoral candidate.

Reyes, the Ciudad Juarez mayor, told The Associated Press that city authorities “will have to change the way we operate.”

“We’ve started changing all our protocols, to include bomb situations,” he said.

But there was little information from the federal government on what its next steps would be.

Attorney General Arturo Chavez told a news conference Friday that the nature of the explosives used in the attack was still under investigation, and that there was “no evidence anywhere in the country of narco-terrorism.”

It didn’t seem that way to many frightened Mexicans — or police.

“It’s terrorism,” a federal police officer muttered at the bombing scene Saturday.

Yuriria Sierra, a columnist for Excelsior Newspaper, questioned the attorney general’s remarks: “With a population terrified to go out because they don’t know if they will come home, we still can’t talk about ‘narco-terrorism?’”

“We don’t need Al-Qaida to live in fear. Here, we have everything we need to feel like we live in an environment where narco-terrorism can strike at any moment,” she wrote.

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