A mother pushing her child in a stroller in downtown El Paso was struck by an errant bullet fired during a shootout between Mexican police and car-jacking suspects just across the border in violence-ridden Ciudad Juarez, according to El Paso police officials.
Forty-eight-year-old Maria Romero has been treated and released from El Paso's University Medical Center, but authorities continue to investigate the rare cross-border shooting. Her child was unharmed.
Romero, a Mexican citizen, is a legal U.S. immigrant and did not even hear the bursts of assault rifle fire across the border, according to a statement by the El Paso police department. But others did, calling 911 earlier and alerting them to the gun battle apparently taking place on the Mexican side of the border, according to El Paso police Sgt. Chris Mears.
Romero had been walking in downtown El Paso on Overland Ave., a busy shopping district lined with jewelry and western wear stores, when she was hit. There is no line of sight to Mexico. So how did she get shot? "The entry and exit of the bullet shows a high trajectory shot," said Sgt. Mears, meaning that the bullet was likely fired upwards by either the Mexican police or the gunmen, and happened to loop back down right into Romero's calf.
It was a freak shot, said Mears, who added that "no one in the department can remember this ever happening before." It is certainly the first such incident since the Mexican government's struggle to control the drug trade, which has claimed well over 50,000 Mexican lives, erupted into full-blown war.
In 2008, Mexico's powerful Sinaloa cartel took on Juarez cartel rivals over turf, littering the city of low-wage export assembly plants with its daily toll of gunshot victims and mutilated corpses.
But rounds fired in Mexico's drug war next door have previously struck buildings in the Texas border city.
Two years ago, bullets fired in a gunfight between a suspected drug gang and Mexican authorities struck City Hall, smashing a window. Rounds have also struck a building at the University of Texas at El Paso campus, although no injuries were reported.
Politicians in the United States have voiced fears of possible spillover violence from Mexico, although El Paso, a sprawling southwest Texas city of 700,000 residents, was named the safest city of its size in the United States for the first time two years ago.
In fact, statistics show El Paso has a murder rate 26 times lower than another American border town: Buffalo, New York.
And Mayor John Cook said that violence in Ciudad Juarez and other Mexican border cities has been declining. "It's unfortunate that a carjacking like this is going to get national attention when Mexico is actually doing a pretty good job controlling the violence," Cook said.
He said there is no indication that Tuesday's incident was cartel-related.
The ordeal prompted two elementary schools and a middle school near the border to be locked down for half an hour, according to El Paso Independent School District spokeswoman Renee De Santos.
Reuters contributed to this report.