By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
MEXICO CITY, May 26 -- In a series of raids that began at dawn on Tuesday, federal police detained the mayors of 10 prominent cities in the central state of Michoacan under suspicion that they were working for a violent drug cartel that beheaded its enemies.
The simultaneous detention of the mayors represents an unprecedented and bold move by the government of President Felipe Calderón in his war against the cartels. The mayors were taken to Mexico City to be interrogated.
Some were taken from their homes, others from their offices. In some cases, the mayors were surrounded by 200 federal agents, supported by masked Mexican soldiers.
The mayors were under investigation for the past six months, said Ricardo Nájera, spokesman for the attorney general. They are suspected of leaking information and providing protection to a small but exceptionally violent cartel called La Familia de Michoacan, which announced its presence in 2006 by throwing five severed heads onto the floor of a nightclub.
Almost every day in Mexico, grim-faced suspects are paraded before cameras after their arrest. But the detention of 10 mayors, some dressed in suits and from different political parties, will ignite a firestorm here, especially if the government fails to make cases against them.
In addition to the mayors, federal police detained 18 officials, including state prosecutors and the heads of state and municipal police. Some of the mayors represented major cities, such as Uruapan, which has a population of 350,000.
The sweep occurred in the home state of Calderón and one plagued by marauding drug gangs fighting for control of smuggling routes and protection rackets.
In Morelia, the capital of Michoacan, drug gangs launched a grenade attack during an independence day celebration; and smugglers have fought running gun battles against the Mexican military in the rugged mountain passes.
La Familia rose to prominence last month after U.S. law enforcement officials named it a "kingpin" organization. La Familia is a mini-cartel, engaged in extortion, kidnapping, assassination and drug smuggling, whose leaders say they are acting as a rural militia protecting locals from outsiders.
George W. Grayson, a professor at the College of William and Mary and an expert on drug cartels, said, "La Familia is extremely volatile because of its diverse components and bloodthirsty fanaticism."
Many of the mayors come from strongholds of La Familia and from towns in the mountains, where authorities have conducted raids against methamphetamine laboratories.
Officials declined to say whether those detained for questioning were alleged to have ties with La Familia.
Michoacan Gov. Leonel Godoy Rangel said his government was not advised of the arrests beforehand. "We are very worried when we receive this kind of information, because we don't know if it is a kidnapping or the authorities because no one identified themselves in the beginning," Godoy said in a news conference.