VILLA UNION, Mexico (AP) — When dozens of pickup trucks crowded with armed men and mounted machine guns roared into Villa Union, residents of the small town near the U.S. border began to realize they were the target of a military-style invasion. What followed were hours-long gunbattles between a cartel force estimated to number 70 to 150 men and state police that left 23 people dead. At least 50 homes and buildings were riddled with bullet holes.
In the aftermath, authorities found about 20 abandoned vehicles, some with machine-gun turrets and welded armoring; the doors of many were professionally printed with the initials of a drug cartel. At least four had .50 caliber mounted machine guns.
In a statement Tuesday, the Coahuila state government raised the death toll by one from 22 previously and said 10 suspects had been arrested. Gov. Miguel Riquelme said most of those detained were minors, and the suspects reported they had traveled in 25 vehicles with about a half-dozen people in each one.
Townsfolk, most of whom asked that their names not be used for fear of reprisals, described how the day of terror unfolded:
Saturday, Nov. 30, 10:00 a.m.
Residents of the town of 6,000 were still recovering from Thanksgiving, when hundreds of relatives return from the United States to join their families in a border version of the holiday many here refer to as Dia del Pavo, or Turkey Day. Local business owners were enjoying good sales this year. After a period of terror between 2010 and 2013, the old Zetas cartel that had dominated the town had been weakened, and violence had dropped.
A local roast chicken stand began heating up the rotisserie Saturday for the day’s business.
“Ever since Thursday night we had been having good sales; a lot of people showed up for Turkey Day,” said an employee at a food stand in town’s main square.
Residents on the east side of Villa Union — the side closest to the border city of Nuevo Laredo where a splinter of the Zetas cartel had its base — started seeing convoys of pickup trucks rolling into town. At first, many saw the ammo vests the trucks’ occupants were wearing and thought they were police or soldiers.
“My brother-in-law counted 50 trucks, but there were more on the other side of town,” said one man.
One shop owner counted 20 trucks but stopped counting when he saw that some had Texas plates — or no plates at all. He knew that meant they weren’t police. Others began seeing pickups with the letters “CDN” on their side. “CDN” stands for “Cartel del Noreste,” or “Cartel of the Northeast,” one of the splinter groups of the old Zetas.
People began to hide.
The shop owner who noticed the odd license plates dove into his shop and hid behind the counter. The attackers descended from their vehicles with assault rifles and as soon as the shopkeeper closed his door, they began firing on the town hall.
“You don’t know what to think at a moment like that, you just hide,” said the shop owner. Outside, an ambulance and a police patrol truck were shot up. The truck caught fire and burned.
A block away from the town hall, a grandmother pulled her two grandchildren into an armoire to shield them as a hail of gunfire rang through the town. “It seemed like an eternity passed,” she said.
Beside the town hall, the objective of the attack, parish priest Federico de los Santos was in his church along with a half-dozen parishioners when the gunfire began. They threw themselves to the ground as the bullets flew.
One young man who was walking down the street in the town’s center when the gunfire broke out pounded on a food stall where the 71-year-old owner was starting to roast chicken. He banged until the owner let him in to take cover. They huddled inside.
“I’d never seen a shootout like that except in the movies,” said the stall’s owner.
According to Gov. Riquelme, the detained suspects said they brought gasoline with the intention of torching the town hall but were unable to do so after they dropped the fuel.
The attackers split into at least two groups, and headed toward the west side of town, apparently unaware that army troops and state police had been dispatched from the nearest barracks to the west of Villa Union.
The attackers abducted three civilians: two local firefighters and an employee of the town’s public works department. Two were later found dead.
The gunmen also abducted five young men, apparently intending to use the civilians as guides to escape along the dirt roads that circle the town.
The cartel convoys ran into the state police and soldiers on the west side of town, with one especially fierce firefight breaking out near a gas station.
In the ensuing gunbattles, residents recorded the sound of repeated, sequential fire from assault rifles and the steady chatter of machine guns in long bursts. The gunfight lasted for an hour and a half and left four state police officers and at least nine attackers dead.
Police and soldiers combed the outskirts of Villa Union and nearby areas, sometimes using helicopters. Apparently not all the attackers were able to flee back east toward Nuevo Laredo. Another gunbattle broke out and seven attackers were killed. Many were found to be wearing ammo or bulletproof vests and camouflage clothing. The Zetas, and the Cartel of the Northeast, are known for using such military equipment.
Reinforcements were rushed into the town. Four of the five missing youths turned up alive, apparently freed after guiding the attackers.
Residents began to sweep the shattered glass and bullet casings from the streets
The fifth missing youth, a boy of 15, also appeared alive but traumatized hours later. The attackers had left him far outside of town.