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Mexico moves to crack down on drug-cartel violence

MEXICO CITY—The Mexican government deployed at least 600 federal police officers, soldiers and special agents Monday to three cities near the U.S. border in an ongoing crackdown against drug-cartel violence.

The move came after six prison employees were found dead Thursday outside a maximum-security prison at Matamoros. Federal officials already had sent reinforcements into the Matamoros facility, but Monday's action went beyond the prison, extending to the business and residential areas of Matamoros, Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo, all in the northern state of Tamaulipas.

"They are already safeguarding Reynosa, and the army is putting up checkpoints around the city," Ramon Martin Huerta, the head of the federal Public Security Department, said at a news conference in Reynosa. "Today, we're carrying out an operation without precedent to protect citizens." He said additional military would continue to arrive and would stay as long as necessary.

The decision to deploy the police came after Martin Huerta held a late-night meeting Sunday with Tamaulipas Gov. Eugenio Hernandez, mayors and police officials about fighting the cartels.

There was little information about the government takeover of Tamaulipas, where 2.7 million people live. The agents and officers began patrolling streets and checking cars, but there were no other details of where they were working and what actions were being taken.

Tamaulipas is the base of the Gulf cartel, which supplies marijuana, cocaine and amphetamines to the United States and has been fighting a turf war with other traffickers. Last year, officials said, the state had some 70 drug-related murders and more than 120 kidnappings.

Many Mexicans welcomed the crackdown.

"This should have been done a long time ago in all cities plagued with drug traffickers," a man wrote in an e-mail to the Mexico City newspaper El Universal, which put up a Web site for reactions. "Mexico must be a secure nation, free of drugs, where our children can grow healthy."

But many of the e-mails criticized President Vicente Fox.

"He's been in office nearly six years and his term ends in 2006. He's had plenty of time to act against crime," said one reader named Miguel.

Hernandez, the governor of Tamaulipas, said Monday that he was purging many state police forces because some officers reportedly were paid by drug gangs. But critics argue that as long as prison guards are paid minimum wage, they're easy targets for bribes by drug traffickers.

Martin Huerta said visitor restrictions would be imposed in Tamaulipas' prisons and in Mexico's 400 other jails. In La Palma, for example, a maximum-security prison west of Mexico City, prisoners, relatives, lawyers and even federal officials were undergoing "extreme" searches, which included being strip-searched, photographed and fingerprinted.

Reinforcements also were sent Monday to Piedras Negras, a city south of Eagle Pass, Texas, that's also in Tamaulipas, after an alleged hit man for a leader of one of the drug cartels tried to escape from a prison there at dawn Friday, shooting at guards with an AK-47. Officials identified the man as Jesus Rios Adrian, who was later captured. There were no casualties.

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

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