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Mexico Gunmen Kill U.S. Consulate Staff

Nearly 19,000 people have been killed in suspected drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderon came to power in late 2006 and launched a military assault on Mexico's powerful drug cartels.

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico; (Reuters) -- Gunmen in the drug war-plagued Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez have killed two Americans and a Mexican linked to the local U.S. consulate, and President Barack Obama has expressed outrage at the attack.

An American woman working at the consulate in Ciudad Juarez, just over the border from El Paso, Texas, and her U.S. husband were shot dead by suspected drug gang hitmen in broad daylight on March 14 as they left a consulate social event, U.S. and Mexican officials told Reuters.

A Mexican man married to another consulate employee was killed around the same time in another part of the city after he and his wife left the same event, a U.S. official said.

The official, who asked not to be identified, said it was not clear if the victims had been specifically targeted, and the motive for the attacks was unknown.

Bloodshed has exploded in recent months in Ciudad Juarez as the head of the Juarez cartel, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, fights off a bloody offensive by Mexico's No. 1 fugitive drug lord, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, at the worst hotspot of Mexico's three-year-old drug war.

"The president is deeply saddened and outraged by the news," said White House National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer. He said Obama "shares in the outrage of the Mexican people at the murders of thousands in Ciudad Juarez and elsewhere in Mexico."

The State Department updated its warning on travel to Mexico to say it had authorized the departure of dependents of U.S. government personnel from consulates in Ciudad Juarez and five other northern border cities.

"The safety and security of our personnel and their families in Mexico and at posts around the world is always our highest priority," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in statement. "These appalling assaults on members of our own State Department family are, sadly, part of a growing tragedy besetting many communities in Mexico."

Nearly 19,000 people have been killed since President Felipe Calderon came to power in Mexico in late 2006 and launched a military assault on the country's powerful drug cartels, sparking a surge in violence that has alarmed Washington, foreign investors and tourists.

Most victims are rival traffickers and police, and to a lesser extent soldiers, local officials and bystanders. It is rare for drug gang hitmen to target foreigners.

The murders may be have been carried out by gangs related to the Juarez cartel, which has controlled cocaine trafficking in the region, the Chihuahua state government said in a statement.

"The Mexican authorities are determined to clarify what happened and bring those responsible to justice," the Mexican Foreign Ministry said of the killings.

The attack on the U.S. couple began with a car chase and ended in front of the main border crossing into El Paso, an area heavily patrolled by soldiers, local newspaper “El Diario” reported. The couple's baby girl survived the attack.

The Mexican spouse was murdered in an upscale neighborhood of the city when gunmen boxed in his car with other vehicles and shot him, according to a local newspaper photographer who soon arrived at the scene.

The dead man's wife, who was following in a second car, was unhurt, but their two children were wounded.

The drug war has killed more than 4,600 people in the manufacturing city in two years, and constant scenes of bullet-ridden vehicles and bodies lying in pools of blood have prompted many middle-class residents to flee.

Across Mexico, drug violence is at its worst level ever, and many U.S. students have heeded warnings not to cross the border this year for their annual "spring break" vacation.

A burst of drug gang clashes killed at least 27 people, including four who were beheaded, this weekend around the Pacific resort of Acapulco.

At least 13 were killed on Saturday and at least 14 on Sunday, police said.