CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico – The first successful car bombing by a drug cartel brings a new dimension of terror to a Mexican border region already shocked by random street battles, bodies dangling from bridges, and highway checkpoints mounted by heavily armed criminals.

The attack, seemingly lifted from an al-Qaida playbook, demonstrated once again that the cartels are a step ahead of both an already guarded public and federal police, who have recently taken over command from the military of the battle against traffickers in Ciudad Juarez, a city across the border from El Paso, Texas.

“It’s a lot like Iraq,” said Claudio Arjon, who owns a restaurant near the scene of the attack and was surveying the damage from behind police lines Saturday. “Now, things are very different. It’s very different. It’s very ugly.”

STATE OF SIEGE

People in Ciudad Juarez already live under siege. Like many restaurant owners, Arjon closes his business long before dark every day to avoid criminal gangs that threaten him and his clientele. Parents take separate cars to the same place so one can warn the other of dangers up ahead. Ambulance drivers and emergency room doctors come under fire from gang members trying to finish off wounded rivals.

The car bomb, which killed at least three people Thursday, was the one thing nobody was expecting. It was a carefully planned attack designed to catch the extremely wary population and security forces off guard.

A street gang tied to the Juarez cartel lured federal officers and paramedics to the site of the bomb by dressing a bound, wounded man in a police uniform and calling in a false report of an officer shot, said Ciudad Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes.

Among those killed was a private doctor who rushed to the scene to help treat the wounded man. Among the injured was a local TV cameraman who had been filming the paramedics treating the man. Even in a country where beheadings and drive-by shootings are routine, they could not imagine the cartels would choose that vulnerable moment to strike.

RESCUERS WARNED

“In all my time working, nothing like this had ever happened to me,” Channel 5 cameraman Luis Hernandez told Milenio television.

The Red Cross in Ciudad Juarez already instructs their personnel to wait until police cordon off the scene of an attack before treating the wounded — but that wasn’t enough Thursday, when the attackers clearly waited until everyone was in place before striking.

Now, Red Cross officials say they are warning their rescuers to look out for anything unusual — a parked car or an abandoned bag — that could be a bomb.

“They have to think with their heads and not their hearts,” said Gilberto Contreras, president of the Red Cross in the city.

Federal police said the bombing attack was in retaliation for the arrest earlier in the day of a top leader of the La Linea gang, which works for the Juarez drug cartel. Investigators were still trying to determine what type of explosives the attackers used.

Brig. Gen. Eduardo Zarate, commander of the regional military zone, said as much as 22 pounds of explosives might have been used. He said it might have been detonated remotely, adding that burned batteries connecting to a mobile phone were found at the scene.

There have long been indications that the drug gangs were experimenting with explosives — and steadily improving their know-how. Gunmen have stolen explosive substances from transport vehicles and private companies. In a February 2009 raid on a U.S. firm in the northern state of Durango, masked gunmen stole 900 cartridges of Tovex water gel explosives.

In March, an improvised explosive device went off without injuring anyone at a gas station in Cadereyta, a town in the northern state of Nuevo Leon.

That bomb consisted of two cylinders filled with nails and possibly black powder — a substance easily available on the black market — according to a U.S. Bomb Data Center report. A cell phone hard-wired to a cattle prod was found at the scene.

BETTER INTELLIGENCE NEEDED

The report said the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was helping to investigate that blast and several other situations around Mexico possibly involving remotely controlled IEDs.

While Mexican federal police have training in post-blast investigations, no security force in the country has experience with patrolling cities that could be mined with car bombs or roadside explosives.

“There’s no way the Mexicans are prepared for it,” said Eric Olson, a senior associate at the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. “I hate to say it, but the cartels seem to have no limits to the violence and terrible things they are willing to do.”

Olson said the best way for federal police to confront this new threat would be to improve their intelligence capabilities, which he called a serious weakness.

“It requires operational intelligence. It requires ‘We know this is going to happen or likely is going to happen in this neighborhood,’” he said. “That kind of refined intelligence is extremely difficult anywhere. But it doesn’t seem to be available in a place like Ciudad Juarez.”