Mexican drug cartel attacks, killing 19 soldiers and police

MEXICO CITY -- Revenge is not a new theme in Mexico's drug wars.

But suspected members of the La Familia cartel in the state of Michoacan gave new meaning to the word over the weekend -- even in hardened Mexico -- after gunmen shot up police stations across the country, killing five officers and two soldiers by the time the revenge attacks were over on Saturday.

The crisis deepened on Tuesday, when 12 people tortured, slain and dumped along a mountain road near the town of La Huacana in Michoacan state were identified as military intelligence officers. The bound and blindfolded bodies of 11 men and one woman were found late Monday.

Mexican authorities say the series of assaults, among the most brazen since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched an antidrug offensive in Mexico in December 2006, were a direct response to the arrest of one of their alleged leaders early Saturday.

It was characterized as a Mexican version of the "Tet offensive" by one columnist -- a turning point in a nation's loss of faith that Mexico can come out from under the force of organized crime. And that questioning is perhaps no greater than in Michoacan, Calderon's home state, where his military effort began, and where a grenade was launched in a public plaza last year.

"This attack and (the grenade incident) are not just simply examples of gang violence. They have a much more profound impact on the public psyche," says Bruce Bagley, a Latin America drugs expert at the University of Miami. "They erode confidence in Calderon's strategy and the legitimacy of the state response."

Authorities believe the attacks were a retaliatory response to the arrest of Arnoldo Rueda Medina, reported to be a head of the La Familia cartel, on Saturday morning in Morelia, the capital of Michoacan.

Throughout that day, gunmen attacked federal police stations in seven cities across the state, as well as in Guanajuato and Guerrero states. The following day a hotel in Michoacan, in the port city of Lazaro Cardenas, was fired on, but no one was injured.

Two men have since been arrested in the attacks against government authorities, among the worst the nation has seen since Calderon sent 45,000 troops across the country to lessen the grip of organized crime that reaches into police forces, government institutions and mountain villas across the country.

Some 11,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence since 2006.

But even in Mexico, where beheadings and public death threats are a new norm, the weekend attacks seemed to raise the stakes.

Writing in the Milenio newspaper, columnist Ciro Gomez Leyva described the public mood:

"In the war against the narcos, July 11 seems like a kind of Tet offensive, the synchronized, made-for-Hollywood offensive by the ... North Vietnamese Army that, despite being characterized as a military disaster, created the perception that the otherwise invincible US army would never win in Vietnam."

The attacks over the weekend will do little to bolster Calderon's National Action Party, or PAN, which already had fared poorly in legislative elections last week.

"The (drug gangs) are demonstrating to the government that their security strategy has only limited impact," says Bagley, the University of Miami professor. "They demonstrated that they have ongoing capacity to intimidate, coerce and carry out violence against police despite the militarization."

This message resounds in Michoacan, where the military has manned the streets the longest and where La Familia has grown into one of the nation's most powerful outfits.

"In Michoacan, they have become a force to be reckoned with," says Bagley.