Mexico's crime syndicates increasingly target authorities in drug war's new phase

Two police officers embrace after they escape a deadly ambush by gunmen in Ciudad Juarez, a border city.
Two police officers embrace after they escape a deadly ambush by gunmen in Ciudad Juarez, a border city. (Javier Manzano/associated Press)
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By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 2, 2010

MORELIA, MEXICO -- As a public safety chief was riding home last weekend after an evening of political schmoozing at the state fair, a stolen tractor-trailer burst onto the highway -- and another high-profile ambush began with a blast of light.

They were lobbing grenades at her.

Over the next six minutes -- as the official, Minerva Bautista, screamed into a police radio, "They're killing me!" -- up to 40 heavily armed commandos unleashed more than 2,700 rounds at her three-vehicle convoy of armor-plated sport-utility vehicles. Some of the weapons were capable of penetrating a vehicle's engine block or knocking down a helicopter.

Mexico's crime syndicates appear to be escalating their attacks against the state, according to law enforcement officials. No longer content to fight police officers and soldiers when confronted with arrest, the drug organizations are increasingly targeting police commanders and public officials.

"In the last few weeks, the dynamics of the violence have changed," said Interior Minister Fernando Gómez-Mont, the country's top security official. "The criminals have decided to directly confront and attack the authorities."

More than 22,700 people have been killed in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderón began his battle against the powerful drug cartels in December 2006, according to a confidential government report. Mexican officials stress that the overwhelming majority of the dead were gangsters killed over turf or for revenge. Yet Calderón recently revealed that more than 1,100 of those killed were soldiers, police officers and officials.

Violence against Mexican authorities has been sensational but relatively rare in the past three years. But according to news and police reports, Mexico has entered an especially deadly period, with scores of attacks against police officers and government officials across the country.

In Ciudad Juarez, which is across the border from El Paso and is considered the capital of drug violence, gunmen ambushed two police vehicles at a busy intersection last week, killing seven officers and a 17-year-old passerby. Six of the police officers killed were federal officers; their colleagues now live in a hotel protected by armed guards and a wall of sandbags. Twenty-nine police officers have been killed in Juarez this year.

A week ago, gunmen raided the customs office at an international bridge that links Camargo, Mexico, to Rio Grande, Tex., forcing officials to close the border crossing for several hours.

The same day, in La Union, in the state of Guerrero, assailants threw grenades at offices of the state ministerial police.

In the sleepy little farm town of Los Aldamas in Nuevo Leon state, the police chief was dragged from his home and killed alongside two deputies last month. Earlier, the police chief in a nearby town was decapitated.

The assistant police chief in Nogales, Sonora, and his bodyguard were killed in late March in a barrage of fire from AK-47s.

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