12 Federal Agents Are Slain in Mexico
Toll Marks Sharp Escalation in Drug War

By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 15, 2009

NUEVO CASAS GRANDES, Mexico, July 14 -- Mexican authorities said Tuesday that a super-violent drug cartel called La Familia was responsible for torturing and killing 12 federal agents whose bodies were found dumped alongside a mountain road in the western state of Michoacan late Monday.

The agents, who included one woman, had been investigating organized crime in Michoacan, where gunmen launched a series of highly coordinated commando attacks against police officers and soldiers over the weekend.

The abduction, torture and execution of such a large group of federal agents marks a steep escalation in President Felipe Calderón's war with the drug cartels. Though drug mafias often clash with local police officials they fail to intimidate or corrupt, a direct counterattack against federal forces is almost unheard-of. The 12 agents represent the highest one-day death toll for federal forces in the three-year-old drug war.

Placed beside the corpses of the agents, who were off-duty when they were abducted, was a sign threatening police, Monte Alejandro Rubido, a senior federal security official, said at a news conference.

Federal officials say they think the attacks by La Familia, a mini-cartel that announced its presence two years ago by rolling five decapitated heads into a dance hall, were carried out in retaliation for the capture of one of the group's leaders.

The attacks began at dawn Saturday in Michoacan's capital, Morelia, shortly after the arrest of Arnold Rueda Medina, reported to be the right-hand man of La Familia founder Nazario Moreno González, known as "El Mas Loco," or the Craziest One.

After La Familia gunmen were repelled in their attempt to free Rueda, they went on what police described as a shooting rampage to "avenge" his capture. The attacks, in which convoys of gunmen mounted surprise assaults on government positions in eight cities, went on for 10 hours Saturday and continued sporadically Sunday.

Mexican law enforcement officials say La Familia is a different kind of cartel, combining a code of extreme violence with a commitment to protect Michoacan residents from outsiders -- which would include federal agents and army soldiers.

Members of La Familia are recruited from rural militias and drug treatment centers. Federal authorities swept into city halls in Michoacan and arrested 10 mayors in May on suspicion of colluding with the gang.

La Familia is fighting for control of cocaine-smuggling routes that lead from the port of Lazaro Cardenas toward the United States. The group also operates clandestine methamphetamine labs and marijuana farms in the mountains.

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