In the predawn hours of Sunday morning, a ringing phone in the Red Cross base in this violence-torn Mexican city is a warning of impending tragedy. The first responders on call on this particular night had already seen plenty of action: a man with a bullet embedded in his skull; a beaten corpse dumped on a street corner; a blood-soaked drunk who tried to pull a policeman's gun from his holster. But the worst had been waiting until last. Someone was calling in from the middle of a firefight raging in a rough neighborhood on the outskirts of town. Several men had been shot, said the hysterical caller, and were bleeding to death on his front porch.
The young medics look at each other and sigh. "We can't go in while the bullets are still flying. It's just too dangerous," says Eladio Cota, a boisterous 32-year-old paramedic. "It's hard, but those are the rules." By the time their ambulance made its way down the bumpy unpaved roads, it was too late. Masked, black-clad police stood somberly next to a line of yellow tape as soldiers pulled up in green humvees, fingers at the triggers of their mounted machine guns. Behind the tape, two twisted bodies sprawled on the dirt street--the latest victims of the drug-related bloodshed that thus far has claimed an unprecedented 5,300 lives in Mexico this year. (See pictures of the battle for CuliacĂˇn.)
As narcotraffickers battle over turf and trade, the unpaid Red Cross volunteers who come to the aid of the wounded are under increasing pressure. CuliacĂˇn is home to some of Mexico's most notorious drug kingpins, and thugs fight daily with Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades and homemade bombs. About 3,000 soldiers and federal agents patrol the city in Hummers and helicopters, but the job of picking up the maimed is left entirely to the Red Cross--mostly medical students in their teens and 20s. The local government donates to the group but provides no emergency service of its own. "It is very difficult when we know that someone is waiting and dying, but the security of our people is important to us," says JosĂ© Vidal GonzĂˇlez, head of the ambulance unit. "Our volunteers are trained to serve a community in peacetime, but they are increasingly dealing with a war zone."
Zooming to and from scenes of murder and mayhem, the medics swap anecdotes of their ordeals. Last year, recalls medical student Juan Carlos Saavedra, 24, a group of gunmen held up an ambulance, smacked around the medics and shot their patient dead on his stretcher--finishing off a victim who had survived an earlier hit. "One bullet was shot right next to the oxygen tank. If it had been a bit closer, the whole ambulance would have exploded," he says, miming the shooting with his fingers. Masked gunmen have also stormed into city hospitals to send the wounded on their way. A wall back at the base displays letters from several private clinics ordering the medics not to bring any gunshot victims into their wards.
"These bad guys don't respect anything today," says medic Carlos Tiznado, 22. "Some years ago, the gangsters would say, 'It's the Red Cross, leave them alone,' but now they're like, 'We'll hurt you too.'" It can be particularly unnerving treating wounded criminals with their friends and relatives standing by. "I have had these guys threatening to kill me unless I save the man's life," he says. "It's sad to think we could lose our lives at the hand of these narcos."
Four months earlier, the medics had raced to the scene of a shooting, only to find the victim dead from blood loss, ripped apart by bullets from an AK-47. After an initial review, they left the scene--unaware that the dead man clutched an unpinned grenade beneath him, an explosive the military later defused. "If the medics had just moved the body a little, the grenade could have exploded," says ambulance chief GonzĂˇlez. "Not even a bulletproof jacket could save them from that. The only way we are going to be safer is if this violence calms down. In the meantime, we just have to keep serving our community in the best way we can."