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Mexican hitmen kill 15 in latest massacre

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Suspected drug hitmen shot dead 15 people at a car wash in western Mexico on Wednesday, the third massacre in just a few days, putting new pressure on President Felipe Calderon to stop the growing violence.

The gunmen, in three SUVs, opened fire on staff and customers in the car wash on the outskirts of the city of Tepic in Nayarit state, provoking panic as the victims, all workers at the car wash, collapsed to the ground.

"The workers were all men; they were washing cars when the gunmen, probably members of organized crime, drove up in SUVs (sport utility vehicles) and started opening fire," said a spokeswoman at the Nayarit state attorney general's office.

Photographs in local media showed bodies slumped on the roadside with pools of blood around their heads.

The multiple murder is the third since Friday when gunmen shot and killed 14 people and injured a 9-year-old boy at a party in Ciudad Juarez across from El Paso, Texas. On Sunday, gunmen in Tijuana killed 14 people at a rehabilitation center in the city bordering San Diego, California.

Almost 30,000 people have died in drug-related killings across Mexico over the past four years, worrying investors who long considered Mexico as a stable U.S. ally, oil producer and one of the world's top 20 economies.

Mexico's interior minister condemned the killings.

It was not immediately clear why the hitmen attacked the car wash workers, the state prosecutor's office said. It denied media reports that the victims were recovering drug addicts.

Young, impoverished men who wash cars often work as street spies for drug gangs. Convicted drug lord Osiel Cardenas, now imprisoned in Texas, started out washing cars for local drug bosses in Nuevo Laredo and worked his way up the Gulf cartel.

Nayarit, a coastal state with expensive beach resorts catering to U.S. tourists, has remained a quiet corner of Mexico since Calderon launched his drug war in December 2006.

But the shootings underscore how killings have spread from the notoriously violent border region across the country.

"OUT OF THEIR MINDS"

Drug gangs La Familia, the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel, led by Mexico's most-wanted man, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, are fighting over western Mexico. But the recent rash of massacres suggest that local gangs linked to major cartels are fighting turf wars for control of criminal rackets rather than over smuggling routes into the United States.

The massacres have put renewed pressure on Calderon, who has vowed to beat back the cartels but is struggling to defend his strategy as the death toll from his drug war surges.

A group of armed men attacked the main police station in Ciudad Madero near the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, injuring seven police officers and a civilian, police said.

In a televised security meeting, Calderon pledged to continue his fight and held a moment of silence for the victims of the attacks in Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana and Tepic.

He also signaled the difficulty in explaining the recent murders, which differ from traditional attacks on drug gang rivals over the past few years.

"These people are out of their minds. They are crazy and they are using very violent means to look for their own purposes," Calderon said in an interview with BBC World News.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott in Monterrey; editing by Jim Marshall)

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