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Mexico declares `mother of all battles' in effort to control prisons

MEXICO CITY—Mexican President Vicente Fox on Friday declared the "mother of all battles" against jailed drug traffickers suspected of masterminding the execution-style killings of six employees of the federal prison in Matamoros, Mexico, including the facility's director of security.

After an extraordinary meeting with his Cabinet late Thursday, Fox ordered soldiers and police to set up roadblocks outside all three of Mexico's maximum security prisons in an attempt to control a penal system that many believe has fallen under the control of jailed drug lords.

"It's clear the homicides in Tamaulipas are a challenge to the government because we've attacked the interests of organized crime, particularly drug trafficking," Fox said Friday, referring to the Matamoros prison by the name of the Mexican state where it's located. "We're going to use all the resources within the law to combat these delinquent groups who seek to alter the peace and security of the nation."

"War was declared a long time ago," Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha said. He blamed "criminals, many of them in prison and others on the streets" for the six deaths.

Also Friday, the lawyer of two imprisoned drug lords was shot to death in Toluca, outside Mexico City. It wasn't clear if the killing was related to the prison violence.

The six men were found Thursday in a white Ford Explorer parked a half-mile from the Matamoros prison. They were handcuffed, blindfolded and riddled with bullets. Three were found in passenger seats and the others had been thrown in the back, police said.

The vehicle belonged to one of the dead men, Marco Antonio Vargas, head of prison security. Also killed were Juan Carlos Tinajero, the prison's head of computer systems; two prison drivers, Francisco Zavala and Guadalupe Moreno; and two men described as technicians, Isidor del Valle and Adolfo Zapata.

All had been working the night shift, which ended at 8 a.m. Thursday. The Mexican attorney general's office said in a news release that the men had left the prison in three vehicles. It offered no explanation of how the men came to be in one vehicle but said two other vehicles were located and are under investigation. The bodies were found at around 11:15 a.m. local time.

The murders came two days after Mexican officials, in an attempt to break up drug gangs, transferred some prisoners to Matamoros from the La Palma prison outside Mexico City. Last Friday, soldiers stormed La Palma after authorities reported that reputed drug lords Osiel Cardenas of the Gulf cartel, which controls the Matamoros drug trade, and Benjamin Arellano Felix, of the Tijuana cartel, had formed an alliance behind bars to battle a rival drug gang trying to move into their territories.

Attorney General Macedo de la Concha said investigators don't know whether the victims of Thursday's killings were innocent or involved in crime. But officials believe the killings in Matamoros and previous violence at La Palma are linked.

Cardenas controls a group of enforcers called Los Zetas, made up of ex-Mexican special forces soldiers, who've often carried out prison escapes and killed competing drug traffickers.

Authorities have portrayed the violence as part of a turf war that pits Cardenas and Arellano against escaped drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who runs Mexico's third main drug network, known as the Juarez cartel.

That claim received backing Friday evening when an attorney who'd defended Cardenas and Arellano previously was found shot to death. Leonardo Oceguera Jimenez was walking in the city of Toluca when a man got out of a car and shot him five times before fleeing.

Oceguera had spent much of the day at La Palma and in the past week had participated in demonstrations by family members, who are angry that they haven't been able to visit their loved ones in La Palma since the prison was occupied last week.

Mexican officials said Friday that the prison upheavals prove they're making inroads against drug gangs. They note that 160,000 drug traffickers and other offenders have been jailed since Fox took office in 2000.

"These reactions we are seeing are precisely because we are cleaning up the prisons," said Interior Minister Santiago Creel, who oversees national security. "It is because we are making progress that these things are happening."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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