Mexico's Police Chief Is Killed In Brazen Attack by Gunmen

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 9, 2008

MEXICO CITY, May 8 -- Gunmen assassinated Mexico's national police chief Thursday, blasting him with nine bullets outside his home in the capital and dealing a significant setback to the government's campaign against drug cartels.

Edgar Eusebio Millán Gómez, the public face of Mexico's offensive against drug cartels, became the highest-ranking law enforcement official to be killed since the launch of the effort 17 months ago. The assassination could give new confidence to drug cartels blamed for 6,000 killings in the past 2 1/2 years, and embolden other anti-government groups in this violence-plagued nation.

"This could have a snowball effect, even leading to the risk of ungovernability," Luís Astorga, a Mexico City-based sociologist and drug expert, said in an interview. "It indicates terrible things, a level of weakness in our institutions -- they can't even protect themselves."

Mexico's drug and violence problem now engulfs the entire country, swamping cities along the U.S.-Mexico border and rugged drug cartel redoubts in the western mountains, and piercing into the heart of national power in Mexico City. The capital, once relatively immune to such brazen drug killings, has been the scene of four assassinations of high-ranking federal police officials in about a week.

Millán Gómez's forces have conducted large-scale counter-narcotics operations throughout much of Mexico. He had ordered thousands of federal police to take over crime-fighting responsibilities from local police suspected of aiding drug traffickers. Those field operations -- often conducted with the military -- have led to widespread resentment among local and state law enforcement offices plagued by corruption.

It has long been common for assassins to target local and state police chiefs in Mexico, but this year, cartels have been increasingly going after some of the biggest names in the federal law enforcement structure. In January, police in Mexico City confiscated grenade launchers and arrested three men who have been accused of planning to assassinate José Luís Santiago Vasconcelos, a top prosecutor who oversees the extraditions of drug traffickers.

Before Millán Gómez was slain, assassins also killed Robert Velasco Bravo, the head of the federal police agency's organized crime tactical analysis office, as well as two other top police officials, all of them in Mexico City. One of the killings was in Coyoacan, an old-money haven popular with tourists.

Alejandro Gertz Manero, Mexico's former secretary of public safety, said in a Thursday interview on Radio Formula that Millán Gómez's killing demonstrated "a desire to generate an atmosphere of terror."

The capital is also on edge because the once-dormant People's Revolutionary Army, a rebel group that bombed oil pipelines last year, has been demanding the release of several jailed members. The rebels could see the killing of Millán Gómez as a sign of weakness, Astorga, the sociologist, said.

Federal police forces are stretched thin across Mexico, chasing an ever-growing number of suspects in drug killings. Last week, for instance, at least 17 people were killed in an attack on a ranch in the western state of Guerrero. This week, the military was engaged in a major battle with suspected cartel assassins in the central state of Zacatecas. That incident left three dead.

Millán Gómez, 42, had led the federal police for just four months -- and was still considered the interim chief. But for years he had maintained a high profile and had developed a reputation as an uncompromising figure in the battle against cartels.

President Felipe Calderón praised Millán Gómez on Thursday, comparing him to heroes of the Mexican Revolution and calling his assassination a "cowardly" act. Calderón, who has dispatched more than 25,000 federal police and soldiers throughout Mexico to fight drug gangs, vowed to redouble efforts to crush cartels. In an appearance just hours after the killing, Calderón called on the U.S. Congress to approve a $1.4 billion counter-narcotics aid package for Mexico, known as the Merida Initiative.

Millán Gómez was cut down shortly before 1 a.m. outside his apartment building in the Colonia Guerrero neighborhood, a poor section of Mexico City that associates say he chose because it is close to law enforcement offices. He died after being rushed to a hospital. Two bodyguards were injured in the attack but are expected to survive. One suspect was captured. Millán Gómez's family was under police protection, a law enforcement source said.

Suspicion immediately centered on the Sinaloa cartel, a violent drug gang that has waged full-scale battles with federal police and the Mexican military. Mexican law enforcement officials believe the cartel has recently sought to cripple rivals and broaden its control of drug trafficking here -- a business that U.S. authorities estimate generates as much as $23 billion a year.

In January, Millán Gómez made headlines with his announcement that federal police had found a series of safe houses and captured 11 of the Sinaloa cartel's hit men in Mexico City.

At a news conference, Millán Gómez displayed a large arsenal of weapons and three dozen bulletproof vests emblazoned with the initials "FEDA," which police said stood for "Arturo's Special Forces" in Spanish. The initials were believed to be a reference to Arturo Beltrán Leyva, a suspected leader of the Sinaloa cartel whose brother, Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, had been captured days earlier. The captured hit men, Millán Gómez said at the time, were in Mexico City to plot revenge killings.

Even before then, associates say, Millán Gómez considered himself a marked man.

"He knew his life was at risk all the time," Javier Ortiz, a federal police spokesman and friend of Millán Gómez, said in an interview. "But he was absolutely convinced that pounding the cartels was the best thing he could do for Mexico."

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