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Unprecedented wave of narco-violence stuns Argentina city

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Unprecedented wave of narco-violence stuns Argentina city
News

News

Unprecedented wave of narco-violence stuns Argentina city

2024-04-22 01:14 Last Updated At:01:20

ROSARIO, Argentina (AP) — The order to kill came from inside a federal prison near Argentina's capital. Unwitting authorities patched a call from drug traffickers tied to one of the country's most notorious gangs to collaborators on the outside. Hiring a 15-year-old hit man, they sealed the fate of a young father they didn't even know.

At a service station on March 9 in Rosario, the picturesque hometown of soccer star Lionel Messi, 25-year-old employee Bruno Bussanich was whistling to himself and checking the day's earnings just before he was shot three times from less than a foot away, surveillance footage shows. The assailant fled without taking a peso.

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A chain lock reinforces the locked door of a gas station that started closing shop at night after the killing of a worker at a nearby station a few weeks before, in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The order to kill came from inside Ezeiza Prison from gang leaders who hired a 15-year-old hitman to kill gas station worker Bruno Bussanich on March 9. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

ROSARIO, Argentina (AP) — The order to kill came from inside a federal prison near Argentina's capital. Unwitting authorities patched a call from drug traffickers tied to one of the country's most notorious gangs to collaborators on the outside. Hiring a 15-year-old hit man, they sealed the fate of a young father they didn't even know.

Prison guards stand inside the Pinero jail complex in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. President Javier Milei has called for harsher penalties against drug traffickers and military intervention. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Prison guards stand inside the Pinero jail complex in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. President Javier Milei has called for harsher penalties against drug traffickers and military intervention. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

An inmate looks out from a window at Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Authorities have ramped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

An inmate looks out from a window at Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Authorities have ramped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Inmates play soccer at Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Authorities have ramped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Inmates play soccer at Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Authorities have ramped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

The Pinero jail complex stands in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. President Javier Milei’s tough-on-crime message has empowered hardline governor Maximiliano Pullaro’s efforts to clamp down on incarcerated criminal groups, which he said planned 80% of shootings in Rosario last year. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

The Pinero jail complex stands in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. President Javier Milei’s tough-on-crime message has empowered hardline governor Maximiliano Pullaro’s efforts to clamp down on incarcerated criminal groups, which he said planned 80% of shootings in Rosario last year. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A police officer stands guard on a street in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. President Javier Milei has promised to prosecute gang members as terrorists and change the law to allow the army into crime-ridden streets for the first time since Argentina's brutal military dictatorship ended in 1983. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A police officer stands guard on a street in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. President Javier Milei has promised to prosecute gang members as terrorists and change the law to allow the army into crime-ridden streets for the first time since Argentina's brutal military dictatorship ended in 1983. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Prison guards stand behind the entrance to Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Authorities have ramped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Prison guards stand behind the entrance to Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Authorities have ramped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A banner hangs over a bus stop asking for justice regarding the murder of bus driver Cesar Roldan in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A banner hangs over a bus stop asking for justice regarding the murder of bus driver Cesar Roldan in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Geronima Benitez wipes her eyes as she speaks about her son Victor Emanuel, 17, who was murdered by drug traffickers who were never arrested two years ago, during an interview at her home in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Benítez said her son’s killer still lives down her street and is not convinced a prison sentence would make a difference. “We, on the outside, live in prison,” she said. “Those inside have everything.” (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Geronima Benitez wipes her eyes as she speaks about her son Victor Emanuel, 17, who was murdered by drug traffickers who were never arrested two years ago, during an interview at her home in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Benítez said her son’s killer still lives down her street and is not convinced a prison sentence would make a difference. “We, on the outside, live in prison,” she said. “Those inside have everything.” (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Geronima Benitez holds a photograph of her son Victor Emanuel, 17, who was murdered by drug traffickers who were never arrested two years ago, at her home in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Benítez said her son’s killer still lives down her street and is not convinced a prison sentence would make a difference. “We, on the outside, live in prison,” she said. “Those inside have everything.” (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Geronima Benitez holds a photograph of her son Victor Emanuel, 17, who was murdered by drug traffickers who were never arrested two years ago, at her home in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Benítez said her son’s killer still lives down her street and is not convinced a prison sentence would make a difference. “We, on the outside, live in prison,” she said. “Those inside have everything.” (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Police patrol the streets of Rosario, Argentina, as a family that collects disposed cardboard to resell pushes their children in a shopping cart, late Monday, April 8, 2024. Agents fanned out across hardscrabble areas, spending hours logging neighborhood activity and setting up checkpoints on major thoroughfares. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Police patrol the streets of Rosario, Argentina, as a family that collects disposed cardboard to resell pushes their children in a shopping cart, late Monday, April 8, 2024. Agents fanned out across hardscrabble areas, spending hours logging neighborhood activity and setting up checkpoints on major thoroughfares. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A mural of Claudio Ariel Cantero covers a wall alongside a supportive message of him written by his family, in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Cantero, known as “El Pajaro,” or The Bird, was the leader of the criminal organization called “Los Monos,” or The Monkeys, and was shot to death at a bowling alley on May 26, 2013 in Santa Fe. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A mural of Claudio Ariel Cantero covers a wall alongside a supportive message of him written by his family, in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Cantero, known as “El Pajaro,” or The Bird, was the leader of the criminal organization called “Los Monos,” or The Monkeys, and was shot to death at a bowling alley on May 26, 2013 in Santa Fe. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A resident who did not want to be identified shows the gun she keeps at her home for self-defense as she poses for a photo in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The homicide rate is five times the national average in Rosario. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A resident who did not want to be identified shows the gun she keeps at her home for self-defense as she poses for a photo in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The homicide rate is five times the national average in Rosario. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

People hang out at a park in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The birthplace of Lionel Messi and revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara morphed about a decade ago into the country’s drug trafficking hub, as regional crackdowns pushed the trade south. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

People hang out at a park in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The birthplace of Lionel Messi and revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara morphed about a decade ago into the country’s drug trafficking hub, as regional crackdowns pushed the trade south. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Police officer Georgina Wilke drives her patrol car in Rosario, Argentina, late Monday, April 8, 2024. Agents fanned out across hardscrabble areas, spending hours logging neighborhood activity and setting up checkpoints on major thoroughfares. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Police officer Georgina Wilke drives her patrol car in Rosario, Argentina, late Monday, April 8, 2024. Agents fanned out across hardscrabble areas, spending hours logging neighborhood activity and setting up checkpoints on major thoroughfares. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A child rides a bicycle past a mural of Gabriel Ignacio Romero, a resident who was murdered on the sidewalk outside his home the previous year, in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. For the past decade, the 1.3 million residents of Rosario have watched warily as presidents and their promises come and go. What endures, they say, is violence. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A child rides a bicycle past a mural of Gabriel Ignacio Romero, a resident who was murdered on the sidewalk outside his home the previous year, in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. For the past decade, the 1.3 million residents of Rosario have watched warily as presidents and their promises come and go. What endures, they say, is violence. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A mural of soccer player Lionel Messi covers a building in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The birthplace of Messi and revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara morphed about a decade ago into the country’s drug trafficking hub, as regional crackdowns pushed the trade south. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A mural of soccer player Lionel Messi covers a building in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The birthplace of Messi and revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara morphed about a decade ago into the country’s drug trafficking hub, as regional crackdowns pushed the trade south. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A prison guard sits in a watchtower at the Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. President Javier Milei has called for harsher penalties against drug traffickers and military intervention. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A prison guard sits in a watchtower at the Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. President Javier Milei has called for harsher penalties against drug traffickers and military intervention. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

It was the fourth gang-related fatal shooting in Rosario in almost as many days. Authorities called it an unprecedented rampage in Argentina, which had never witnessed the extremes of drug cartel violence afflicting some other Latin American countries.

A handwritten letter was found near Bussanich's body, addressed to officials who want to curb the power drug kingpins wield from behind bars. “We don’t want to negotiate anything. We want our rights," it says. "We will kill more innocent people.”

Shaken residents interviewed by The Associated Press across Rosario described a sense of dread taking hold.

“Every time I go to work, I say goodbye to my father as if it were the last time,” said 21-year-old Celeste Núñez, who also works at a gas station.

The string of killings offer an early test to the security agenda of populist President Javier Milei, who has tethered his political success to saving Argentina’s tanking economy and eradicating narco-trafficking violence.

Since taking office Dec. 10, the right-wing leader has promised to prosecute gang members as terrorists and change the law to allow the army into crime-ridden streets for the first time since Argentina's brutal military dictatorship ended in 1983.

His law-and-order message has empowered the hardline governor of Santa Fe province, which includes Rosario, to clamp down on incarcerated criminal gangs that authorities say orchestrated 80% of shootings last year. Under the orders of Governor Maximiliano Pullaro, police have ramped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits.

“We are facing a group of narco-terrorists desperate to maintain power and impunity,” Milei said after Bussanich was killed, announcing the deployment of federal forces in Rosario. “We will lock them up, isolate them, take back the streets.”

Milei won 56% of the vote in Rosario, where residents praise his focus on a problem largely neglected by his predecessors. But some worry the government's combative approach traps them in the line of fire.

Gangs started their deadly retaliations just hours after Pullaro’s security minister shared photos showing Argentine prisoners crammed together on the floor, heads pressed against each other’s bare backs — a scene reminiscent of El Salvador President Nayib Bukele’s harsh anti-gang crackdown.

“It’s a war between the state and the drug traffickers,” said Ezequiel, a 30-year-old employee at the gas station where Bussanich was killed. Ezequiel, who gave only his first name for fear of reprisals, said his mother has since begged him to quit. “We’re the ones paying the price.”

Even Milei's supporters have mixed feelings about the crackdown, including Germán Bussanich, the father of the slain gas station worker.

“They're putting on a show and we're facing the consequences," Bussanich told reporters.

A leafy city 300 kilometers (180 miles) northwest of Buenos Aires, Rosario is where revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara was born, Messi first kicked a soccer ball and the Argentine flag was first raised in 1812. But it most recently won notoriety because its homicide numbers are five times the national average.

Tucked into a bend in the Paraná River, Rosario's port morphed into Argentina's drug trafficking hub as regional crackdowns pushed the narcotics trade south and criminals started squirreling away cocaine in shipping containers spirited down the river to markets abroad. Although Rosario never suffered the car bombs and police assassinations gripping Mexico, Colombia and most recently Ecuador, the splintering of street gangs has fueled bloodshed.

“It’s not close to the violence in Mexico because we still have the deterrence capacity of the government in Argentina,” said Marcelo Bergman, a social scientist at the National University of Tres de Febrero in Argentina. “But we need to keep an eye on Rosario because the major threats come not so much from big cartels but when these groups proliferate and diversify.”

Drug traffickers keep a tight grip over Rosario's poor neighborhoods full of young men vulnerable to recruitment. One of them was Víctor Emanuel, a 17-year-old killed two years ago by rival gangsters in an area where street murals pay tribute to slain criminal leaders. No one was arrested.

“My neighbors know who’s responsible,” his mother, Gerónima Benítez, told the AP, her eyes shiny with tears. “I looked for help everywhere, I knocked on the doors of the judiciary, the government. No one answered.”

A fearful existence is all Benítez has ever known. But now, for the first time in Argentina, warring drug traffickers are banding together and terrorizing parts of the city previously considered safe.

Imprisoned gang leaders in Latin America have long run criminal enterprises remotely with the help of corrupt guards. But according to an indictment unveiled last week, incarcerated gang bosses in Argentina have been passing instructions on how to kill random civilians via family visits and video calls.

Court documents say the bosses paid underage hit men up to $450 to target four of the recent victims in Argentina’s third-largest city. The killing of Bussanich, two taxi drivers and a bus driver in less than a week in March, federal prosecutors say, “shattered the peace of an entire society."

Street emptied. Schools closed. Bus drivers picketed. People were too terrified to leave their homes.

“This violence is on another level,” 20-year-old Rodrigo Dominguez said from an intersection where a dangling banner demanded justice for another bus driver slain there weeks earlier. “You can’t go outside.”

Panic was still palpable in Rosario last week, as police swarmed the streets and normally bustling bars closed early for lack of customers. A diner managed by Messi’s family, a draw for fans, reported quiet nights and less profit. Women in one neighborhood said they carry 22‐caliber pistols. Analía Manso, 37, said she was too scared to send her children to school.

Pope Francis last month said he was praying for his countrymen in Rosario.

Assaults and public threats continue. This month, a sign appeared on a highway overpass warning Argentine Security Minister Patricia Bullrich that gangs would extend their offensive to Buenos Aires if the government doesn't back down.

Authorities have sought to reassure the public by sending hundreds of federal agents into Rosario. The AP spent a night with police last week as officers patrolled neighborhoods logging suspicious activity and setting up checkpoints.

Georgina Wilke, a 45-year-old Rosario officer in the explosives squad, said she welcomes federal intervention, including the military, to get crime under control. “We've been hit very hard,” Wilke said.

Omar Pereira, the provincial secretary of public security, promised the efforts represent a shift from failed tactics of the past.

“There were always pacts, implicit or explicit, between the state and criminals,” Pereira said, describing how authorities long looked the other way. “What’s the idea of this government? There is no pact."

But experts are skeptical a tough-on-crime approach will stop drug traffickers from buying control over Argentina’s police and prisons.

“Unless the government fixes its problems with corruption, the crackdown on prisons is unlikely to have any long-term effect,” said Christopher Newton, an investigator at Colombia-based research organization InSight Crime.

For years, Rosario's 1.3 million residents have watched warily as presidents and their promises come and go while the violence endures.

“It’s like a cancer that grows and grows,” said Benítez from her home, its windows protected by wrought-iron bars.

“We, on the outside, live in prison,” she said. “Those inside have everything.”

A chain lock reinforces the locked door of a gas station that started closing shop at night after the killing of a worker at a nearby station a few weeks before, in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The order to kill came from inside Ezeiza Prison from gang leaders who hired a 15-year-old hitman to kill gas station worker Bruno Bussanich on March 9. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A chain lock reinforces the locked door of a gas station that started closing shop at night after the killing of a worker at a nearby station a few weeks before, in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The order to kill came from inside Ezeiza Prison from gang leaders who hired a 15-year-old hitman to kill gas station worker Bruno Bussanich on March 9. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Prison guards stand inside the Pinero jail complex in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. President Javier Milei has called for harsher penalties against drug traffickers and military intervention. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Prison guards stand inside the Pinero jail complex in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. President Javier Milei has called for harsher penalties against drug traffickers and military intervention. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

An inmate looks out from a window at Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Authorities have ramped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

An inmate looks out from a window at Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Authorities have ramped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Inmates play soccer at Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Authorities have ramped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Inmates play soccer at Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Authorities have ramped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

The Pinero jail complex stands in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. President Javier Milei’s tough-on-crime message has empowered hardline governor Maximiliano Pullaro’s efforts to clamp down on incarcerated criminal groups, which he said planned 80% of shootings in Rosario last year. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

The Pinero jail complex stands in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. President Javier Milei’s tough-on-crime message has empowered hardline governor Maximiliano Pullaro’s efforts to clamp down on incarcerated criminal groups, which he said planned 80% of shootings in Rosario last year. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A police officer stands guard on a street in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. President Javier Milei has promised to prosecute gang members as terrorists and change the law to allow the army into crime-ridden streets for the first time since Argentina's brutal military dictatorship ended in 1983. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A police officer stands guard on a street in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. President Javier Milei has promised to prosecute gang members as terrorists and change the law to allow the army into crime-ridden streets for the first time since Argentina's brutal military dictatorship ended in 1983. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Prison guards stand behind the entrance to Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Authorities have ramped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Prison guards stand behind the entrance to Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Authorities have ramped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A banner hangs over a bus stop asking for justice regarding the murder of bus driver Cesar Roldan in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A banner hangs over a bus stop asking for justice regarding the murder of bus driver Cesar Roldan in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Geronima Benitez wipes her eyes as she speaks about her son Victor Emanuel, 17, who was murdered by drug traffickers who were never arrested two years ago, during an interview at her home in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Benítez said her son’s killer still lives down her street and is not convinced a prison sentence would make a difference. “We, on the outside, live in prison,” she said. “Those inside have everything.” (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Geronima Benitez wipes her eyes as she speaks about her son Victor Emanuel, 17, who was murdered by drug traffickers who were never arrested two years ago, during an interview at her home in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Benítez said her son’s killer still lives down her street and is not convinced a prison sentence would make a difference. “We, on the outside, live in prison,” she said. “Those inside have everything.” (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Geronima Benitez holds a photograph of her son Victor Emanuel, 17, who was murdered by drug traffickers who were never arrested two years ago, at her home in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Benítez said her son’s killer still lives down her street and is not convinced a prison sentence would make a difference. “We, on the outside, live in prison,” she said. “Those inside have everything.” (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Geronima Benitez holds a photograph of her son Victor Emanuel, 17, who was murdered by drug traffickers who were never arrested two years ago, at her home in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Benítez said her son’s killer still lives down her street and is not convinced a prison sentence would make a difference. “We, on the outside, live in prison,” she said. “Those inside have everything.” (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Police patrol the streets of Rosario, Argentina, as a family that collects disposed cardboard to resell pushes their children in a shopping cart, late Monday, April 8, 2024. Agents fanned out across hardscrabble areas, spending hours logging neighborhood activity and setting up checkpoints on major thoroughfares. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Police patrol the streets of Rosario, Argentina, as a family that collects disposed cardboard to resell pushes their children in a shopping cart, late Monday, April 8, 2024. Agents fanned out across hardscrabble areas, spending hours logging neighborhood activity and setting up checkpoints on major thoroughfares. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A mural of Claudio Ariel Cantero covers a wall alongside a supportive message of him written by his family, in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Cantero, known as “El Pajaro,” or The Bird, was the leader of the criminal organization called “Los Monos,” or The Monkeys, and was shot to death at a bowling alley on May 26, 2013 in Santa Fe. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A mural of Claudio Ariel Cantero covers a wall alongside a supportive message of him written by his family, in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Cantero, known as “El Pajaro,” or The Bird, was the leader of the criminal organization called “Los Monos,” or The Monkeys, and was shot to death at a bowling alley on May 26, 2013 in Santa Fe. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A resident who did not want to be identified shows the gun she keeps at her home for self-defense as she poses for a photo in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The homicide rate is five times the national average in Rosario. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A resident who did not want to be identified shows the gun she keeps at her home for self-defense as she poses for a photo in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The homicide rate is five times the national average in Rosario. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

People hang out at a park in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The birthplace of Lionel Messi and revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara morphed about a decade ago into the country’s drug trafficking hub, as regional crackdowns pushed the trade south. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

People hang out at a park in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The birthplace of Lionel Messi and revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara morphed about a decade ago into the country’s drug trafficking hub, as regional crackdowns pushed the trade south. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Police officer Georgina Wilke drives her patrol car in Rosario, Argentina, late Monday, April 8, 2024. Agents fanned out across hardscrabble areas, spending hours logging neighborhood activity and setting up checkpoints on major thoroughfares. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Police officer Georgina Wilke drives her patrol car in Rosario, Argentina, late Monday, April 8, 2024. Agents fanned out across hardscrabble areas, spending hours logging neighborhood activity and setting up checkpoints on major thoroughfares. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A child rides a bicycle past a mural of Gabriel Ignacio Romero, a resident who was murdered on the sidewalk outside his home the previous year, in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. For the past decade, the 1.3 million residents of Rosario have watched warily as presidents and their promises come and go. What endures, they say, is violence. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A child rides a bicycle past a mural of Gabriel Ignacio Romero, a resident who was murdered on the sidewalk outside his home the previous year, in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. For the past decade, the 1.3 million residents of Rosario have watched warily as presidents and their promises come and go. What endures, they say, is violence. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A mural of soccer player Lionel Messi covers a building in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The birthplace of Messi and revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara morphed about a decade ago into the country’s drug trafficking hub, as regional crackdowns pushed the trade south. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A mural of soccer player Lionel Messi covers a building in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The birthplace of Messi and revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara morphed about a decade ago into the country’s drug trafficking hub, as regional crackdowns pushed the trade south. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A prison guard sits in a watchtower at the Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. President Javier Milei has called for harsher penalties against drug traffickers and military intervention. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A prison guard sits in a watchtower at the Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. President Javier Milei has called for harsher penalties against drug traffickers and military intervention. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — More than 1,000 firefighters in New Mexico took advantage of a break in the weather on Thursday to get the upper hand — for now — on a pair of wildfires that have killed two people, destroyed hundreds of homes and forced thousands to flee.

President Joe Biden issued a disaster declaration for parts of southern New Mexico, freeing up funding and more resources as crews worked to keep the flames from spreading. Their efforts have gotten a boost from a storm system that brought with it rain, hail and cooler temperatures to the mountain village of Ruidoso and other parts of the state.

“The fire has lost momentum,” Arthur Gonzales, the fire behavior analyst for the federal attack team, told residents at a community meeting in Alamogordo on Thursday night. “We still have a lot of work to do, but it’s really changed that fire behavior," he said, noting that very little growth is expected over the next few days.

But firefighters know it's a brief respite given the dry tinderbox conditions that helped fuel the fires in the first place. Within days, the fires have consumed an area half the size of Washington, D.C.

“What we’re really focusing on now at this point, is when might we see this return to active fire spread?” Gonzales said. “Is there potential for this to start picking up and moving again?”

Federal and local officials said evacuation orders likely would remain in place for days in some places as crews snuff out hot spots around Ruidoso and law officers patrol streets to keep potential looters away.

Despite some reports that the fires were “human caused,” federal incident commander Dave Gessar said the causes are under investigation and remain “undetermined.”

The federal disaster declaration will help with recovery efforts, including temporary housing, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property and other emergency work in Lincoln County and on lands belonging to the Mescalero Apache Tribe.

Residents fled the larger of the two fires with little notice as it swept into neighborhoods on Monday. More areas were evacuated on Tuesday as the fire ballooned, consuming homes nestled among the the ponderosa pines that dominate the hillsides.

An estimated 1,400 structures have been destroyed or damaged, and Ruidoso Mayor Lynn Crawford has estimated about half were homes. Whole portions of some communities were lost, he said.

“These are things that are burnt to the foundations and all the trees around it,” he said. “It’s devastating.”

Authorities say a 60-year-old man who died was found near the popular Swiss Chalet Inn in Ruidoso. His family said he had arranged for a ride from friends but they were unable to get to him Monday since the roads were blocked. It appeared he was overcome after he tried to set out on foot.

On Wednesday, officers discovered the skeletal remains of an unidentified second person in the driver's seat of a burned vehicle.

A couple of residents have been driving around Ruidoso and neighboring Alto, providing reports via social media of what they are seeing. There are neighborhoods where the ground was turned to ash, the trees were blackened and homes were reduced to their foundations, with only fireplaces remaining.

“I am speechless. I'm so sorry everyone,” said Logan Fle, as he drove down one road.

Much of the Southwest has been exceedingly dry and hot in recent months. Those conditions, along with strong wind, whipped the flames out of control, rapidly advancing the South Fork Fire into Ruidoso in a matter of hours. Evacuations extended to hundreds of homes, businesses, a regional medical center and the Ruidoso Downs horse track.

Nationwide, wildfires have scorched more than 3,344 square miles (8,660 square kilometers) this year — a figure higher than the 10-year average, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Nearly 20 wildfires burning in California, Arizona, Colorado and Washington state and elsewhere are considered large and uncontained.

Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Associated Press writer Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, contributed to this report.

AP Ruidoso wildfires page: https://apnews.com/hub/ruidoso

Deep Blue, a winning race horse who was evacuated from Ruidoso Downs, rests at a stall in Artesia, N.M., Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Strong wind pushed the larger of two wildfires into the mountain village of Ruidoso, forcing residents to flee. One person was killed and hundreds of structures were damaged. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Deep Blue, a winning race horse who was evacuated from Ruidoso Downs, rests at a stall in Artesia, N.M., Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Strong wind pushed the larger of two wildfires into the mountain village of Ruidoso, forcing residents to flee. One person was killed and hundreds of structures were damaged. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Race horses that were evacuated from Ruidoso Downs rest at a stall in Artesia, N.M., Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Strong wind pushed the larger of two wildfires into the mountain village of Ruidoso, forcing residents to flee. One person was killed and hundreds of structures were damaged. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Race horses that were evacuated from Ruidoso Downs rest at a stall in Artesia, N.M., Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Strong wind pushed the larger of two wildfires into the mountain village of Ruidoso, forcing residents to flee. One person was killed and hundreds of structures were damaged. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Drake Thurman, 13, volunteers to care for a race horse who was evacuated from Ruidoso Downs to Artesia, N.M., Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Strong wind pushed the larger of two wildfires into the mountain village of Ruidoso, forcing residents to flee. One person was killed and hundreds of structures were damaged. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Drake Thurman, 13, volunteers to care for a race horse who was evacuated from Ruidoso Downs to Artesia, N.M., Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Strong wind pushed the larger of two wildfires into the mountain village of Ruidoso, forcing residents to flee. One person was killed and hundreds of structures were damaged. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Trainer John Stinebaugh inspects his horses after evacuating them from Ruidoso Downs to Artesia, N.M., Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Strong wind pushed the larger of two wildfires into the mountain village of Ruidoso, forcing residents to flee. One person was killed and hundreds of structures were damaged. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Trainer John Stinebaugh inspects his horses after evacuating them from Ruidoso Downs to Artesia, N.M., Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Strong wind pushed the larger of two wildfires into the mountain village of Ruidoso, forcing residents to flee. One person was killed and hundreds of structures were damaged. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Trainer John Stinebaugh inspects his horses after evacuating them from Ruidoso Downs to Artesia, N.M., Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Strong wind pushed the larger of two wildfires into the mountain village of Ruidoso, forcing residents to flee. One person was killed and hundreds of structures were damaged. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Trainer John Stinebaugh inspects his horses after evacuating them from Ruidoso Downs to Artesia, N.M., Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Strong wind pushed the larger of two wildfires into the mountain village of Ruidoso, forcing residents to flee. One person was killed and hundreds of structures were damaged. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

A couple from Ruidoso, N.M. camps at the Eastern New Mexico State Fairgrounds in Roswell, N.M., Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Strong wind pushed the larger of two wildfires into the mountain village of Ruidoso, forcing residents to flee. One person was killed and hundreds of structures were damaged. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

A couple from Ruidoso, N.M. camps at the Eastern New Mexico State Fairgrounds in Roswell, N.M., Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Strong wind pushed the larger of two wildfires into the mountain village of Ruidoso, forcing residents to flee. One person was killed and hundreds of structures were damaged. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

A Ruidoso resident checks a map on a screen while spending the night at a shelter in Roswell, N.M., Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Thousands of southern New Mexico residents fled the mountainous village as a wind-whipped wildfire tore through homes and other buildings. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

A Ruidoso resident checks a map on a screen while spending the night at a shelter in Roswell, N.M., Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Thousands of southern New Mexico residents fled the mountainous village as a wind-whipped wildfire tore through homes and other buildings. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

A Ruidoso resident sleeps at a shelter in Roswell, N.M., after evacuating from Ruidoso, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Thousands of southern New Mexico residents fled the mountainous village as a wind-whipped wildfire tore through homes and other buildings. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

A Ruidoso resident sleeps at a shelter in Roswell, N.M., after evacuating from Ruidoso, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Thousands of southern New Mexico residents fled the mountainous village as a wind-whipped wildfire tore through homes and other buildings. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Residents of the Mescalero Apache Reservation rest while sheltering at the Inn of the Mountain Gods Resort in Ruidoso, N.M., Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Thousands of residents fled their homes as a wildfire swept into the mountain village of Ruidoso in southern New Mexico. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Residents of the Mescalero Apache Reservation rest while sheltering at the Inn of the Mountain Gods Resort in Ruidoso, N.M., Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Thousands of residents fled their homes as a wildfire swept into the mountain village of Ruidoso in southern New Mexico. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Smoke from a wildfire rises over Ruidoso, N.M., Monday, June 17, 2024. Residents of the mountain village of about 7,000 residents fled their homes under evacuation orders with little time to rescue belongings. (Jacquie Escajeda via AP)

Smoke from a wildfire rises over Ruidoso, N.M., Monday, June 17, 2024. Residents of the mountain village of about 7,000 residents fled their homes under evacuation orders with little time to rescue belongings. (Jacquie Escajeda via AP)

Smoke from a wildfire rises over trees in Ruidoso, N.M., Monday, June 17, 2024. Residents of the mountain village of about 7,000 residents fled their homes under evacuation orders with little time to rescue belongings. (Jacquie Escajeda via AP)

Smoke from a wildfire rises over trees in Ruidoso, N.M., Monday, June 17, 2024. Residents of the mountain village of about 7,000 residents fled their homes under evacuation orders with little time to rescue belongings. (Jacquie Escajeda via AP)

An air tanker drops fire retardant called slurry over and around wildfire-affected areas in the village of Ruidoso, N.M., Tuesday, June 18, 2024. (Chancey Bush/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

An air tanker drops fire retardant called slurry over and around wildfire-affected areas in the village of Ruidoso, N.M., Tuesday, June 18, 2024. (Chancey Bush/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

A car rides on the road to Roswell, N.M., as smoke from a wildfire partially blocks the sun near the village of Ruidoso, N.M., Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Thousands of southern New Mexico residents fled the mountainous village as a wind-whipped wildfire tore through homes and other buildings. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

A car rides on the road to Roswell, N.M., as smoke from a wildfire partially blocks the sun near the village of Ruidoso, N.M., Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Thousands of southern New Mexico residents fled the mountainous village as a wind-whipped wildfire tore through homes and other buildings. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Steven Dobrovolskis eats a slice of pizza while spending the night at a shelter in Roswell, N.M., after evacuating from Ruidoso, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Thousands of southern New Mexico residents fled the mountainous village as a wind-whipped wildfire tore through homes and other buildings. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Steven Dobrovolskis eats a slice of pizza while spending the night at a shelter in Roswell, N.M., after evacuating from Ruidoso, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Thousands of southern New Mexico residents fled the mountainous village as a wind-whipped wildfire tore through homes and other buildings. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

In this image taken from webcam footage provided by the Village of Ruidoso, smoke rises behind Ruidoso, N.M., on Monday, June 17, 2024. Thousands of southern New Mexico residents fled the mountainous village as a wind-whipped wildfire tore through homes and other buildings. (Village of Ruidoso Tourism Department via AP)

In this image taken from webcam footage provided by the Village of Ruidoso, smoke rises behind Ruidoso, N.M., on Monday, June 17, 2024. Thousands of southern New Mexico residents fled the mountainous village as a wind-whipped wildfire tore through homes and other buildings. (Village of Ruidoso Tourism Department via AP)

Ardis Holder, center, and her daughters Adalene, left, and Analece spend the night at a shelter in Roswell, N.M., after evacuating from Ruidoso, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Thousands of southern New Mexico residents fled the mountainous village as a wind-whipped wildfire tore through homes and other buildings. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Ardis Holder, center, and her daughters Adalene, left, and Analece spend the night at a shelter in Roswell, N.M., after evacuating from Ruidoso, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. Thousands of southern New Mexico residents fled the mountainous village as a wind-whipped wildfire tore through homes and other buildings. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

An air tanker soars through a large plume of smoke over and around wildfire-affected areas in the village of Ruidoso, N.M., Tuesday, June 18, 2024. (Chancey Bush/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

An air tanker soars through a large plume of smoke over and around wildfire-affected areas in the village of Ruidoso, N.M., Tuesday, June 18, 2024. (Chancey Bush/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

This satellite image released by Maxar Technologies shows wildfires burning near Ruidoso, N.M. on Wednesday, June 19, 2024 (Satellite image ©2024 Maxar Technologies via AP)

This satellite image released by Maxar Technologies shows wildfires burning near Ruidoso, N.M. on Wednesday, June 19, 2024 (Satellite image ©2024 Maxar Technologies via AP)

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