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Mexico's drug cartels returning fire in fierce struggle

State Police Chief Francisco Fernandez was ambushed in a March 6 attack that killed his driver, Jose de la Luz Perez Mayo, and left him seriously wounded but somehow alive after more than 150 shots were fired at him.
State Police Chief Francisco Fernandez was ambushed in a March 6 attack that killed his driver, Jose de la Luz Perez Mayo, and left him seriously wounded but somehow alive after more than 150 shots were fired at him. Photo courtesy of Novedades / MCT

VILLAHERMOSA, Mexico—There was nothing subtle about the message. A black pickup sped up to Tabasco state police headquarters last week and someone inside lobbed a black bag toward the guard post. The bag bounced a few times like a soccer ball and rolled to a stop. Inside was the blindfolded, bloodied head of a man with a mustache.

A few hours later, the headless body of a small-time drug dealer and alleged police informant was found across the state line in Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state.

The gruesome message to police to back off was another sign that Mexico's drug cartels, whose influence used to be confined largely to regions near the U.S. border, are fighting an increasingly gruesome war throughout the country to control the trade.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who took office Dec. 1, has pledged that his government will defeat the cartels. Soon after taking office, he extradited two of the most wanted drug bosses to the United States and dispatched soldiers to three states to crack down on drug rings, which kill dozens across the country on any given day.

The fight isn't likely to be easy. That's clear in Tabasco, where the latest skirmish sent hundreds of federal police and soldiers into the state capital last weekend to surround state police headquarters and seize a former state police chief.

Tabasco, an oil-rich, swampy state where Mexico's gulf coast bends toward the Yucatan peninsula, hasn't always been a center for drug trafficking. But with the U.S. squeezing off cocaine-smuggling routes by sea in the Gulf of Mexico, more drug shipments are coming through Tabasco, where two of Mexico's most notorious drug gangs, the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels, ferry them to the U.S. border or to other parts of Mexico, where drug use is skyrocketing.

Mayors in Tabasco now travel in heavily armed convoys, fearing attacks by drug gangs. A main state thoroughfare, Highway 186—which passes through Villahermosa as it connects Chetumal, near the Belize border, with the gulf port of Veracruz—is considered so dangerous that people avoid stopping on it for fear of becoming victims of drug gangs.

Local crime reporters worry about their safety, especially since Rodolfo Rincon Taracena, of the newspaper Tabasco Hoy, disappeared Jan. 20 after including the names of alleged local traffickers in a report. His colleagues assume that he's dead.

One veteran journalist, whose name McClatchy agreed to keep secret to protect him, was threatened in January in an unexpected phone call from Mexico City, 423 miles away.

"They told me, `Stop creating problems or we will kill you,'" the reporter said. "When they threaten you, you really start to think. I talked to my editors, and we agreed that on stories about organized crime, we won't use bylines."

There also have been written threats to journalists, in which the letter "s" has been replaced with a "z" throughout the text. This is widely seen as a calling card from the Zetas, the well-armed hit squads that work for the cartels.

Villahermosa, Tabasco's capital city, is tense. Last Friday, a McClatchy reporter was present when police dispatched at least six trucks of beefy plainclothes lawmen with AR-15 assault rifles to the Cinepolis shopping mall in response to a reported kidnapping. Shoppers scurried for cover, some of them weeping, as police stormed the mall, searching in vain for the would-be kidnappers. Local news reports said that the kidnapping target, who also escaped, was connected to organized crime.

In a display of Calderon's new tactics, more than 300 members of the Federal Preventive Police, backed by army units, sealed off Tabasco's sprawling state police complex Saturday. They moved through the headquarters searching for evidence that local police were behind an ambush of Tabasco's top security official March 6.

The raid was overseen by Gen. Humberto Sanchez Gutierrez, the preventive police's national commander.

While the troops swarmed the headquarters, federal police swept down on a local ceremony in the town of Centla and detained Juan Cano Torres, who'd headed the state police force until Dec. 31. Four other active or former cops were detained in Tabasco and, along with Cano, were turned over to a federal agency that's responsible for combating organized crime.

Local newspapers have reported for months on The Brotherhood, a gang of corrupt police who use their positions to aid organized crime. These reports followed a number of high-profile murders of crime figures and a local mayor last year.

Saturday's action included several raids on ranches that Cano owns, where he allegedly harbored hired assassins after they completed hits. Authorities think he's behind the brazen attack earlier this month on his successor, state Police Chief Francisco Fernandez, a retired general who was brought in to get tough on drug dealers and was investigating police ties to traffickers.

"He was aggressively doing his job. It seems more a retaliatory thing," said a U.S. law enforcement official involved in the drug war who cited his security in agreeing to speak only if granted anonymity. "By all sources we have, he was on the up and up."

The attack killed Fernandez's chauffeur. Fernandez survived with injuries that weren't life-threatening, despite more than 150 shots fired at and into his red Chevrolet Suburban.

State and federal law enforcement officials announced the detentions Saturday to hundreds of state police officers, who'd been summoned from the streets to a hastily called news conference in the headquarters' auditorium. Many of the officers applauded—twice—as they learned that allegedly corrupt leaders had fallen.

State and federal officials then implored them to rat out bad elements. Afterward, one officer who asked not to be identified confirmed that corruption among midlevel officers is rampant. He welcomed the action but doubted that many officers would come forward with information.

"Es muy peligroso," he said quietly. It's very dangerous.

Calderon also has taken other steps that U.S. law enforcement officials have praise.

He's extradited drug lords wanted in the United States, a departure from past presidents, who bowed to nationalist sentiment and jailed drug lords in Mexican prisons, from which many kept running their operations.

On Jan. 19, Calderon surprised U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials by delivering Osiel Cardenas, the reputed leader of the violent Gulf Cartel, and Hector "El Guero (Whitey)" Palma, the de facto leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, to the U.S. for trial.

"We're going to use extradition as an instrument to combat organized crime," Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico's new ambassador in Washington, said in an interview.

Calderon also is using the army, sending it to Michoacan and Guerrero states on Mexico's Pacific Coast, where drug cartels are battling one another.

He's bracing for an expected backlash against public officials. In recent weeks, a top airport official in Cancun and the brother of a federal senator there were killed. Some fear that even Calderon could be in danger.

"You have a president who for the first time wants to do something in a new way. He's attacking the problem at its origin," said Ricardo Leon, a lawyer who was the top immigration official in Tabasco until 2004. "I worry about my president's security because he's moving so decisively."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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