Dozens of gunmen tried to blockade two army garrisons in northern Mexico, touching off firefights that killed 18 attackers, the army said Wednesday in announcing what appeared to be a rare drug cartel offensive. Only one soldier was wounded.
While drug gunmen frequently shoot at soldiers on patrol, they seldom target army bases, and even more rarely attack in the force displayed during confrontations Tuesday in the border states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon.
Gunmen staged seven separate attacks on the army, including three blockades, Gen. Edgar Luis Villegas said. He said the attacks were "desperate reactions by criminal gangs to the progress being made by federal authorities" against Mexico's drug cartels.
Villegas said gunmen parked trucks and SUVs outside a military base in the border city of Reynosa trying to block troops from leaving, sparking a gunbattle with soldiers. At the same time, gunmen blocked several streets leading to a garrison in the nearby border city of Matamoros.
Another gang of armed men opened fire from several vehicles on soldiers guarding a federal highway in General Bravo, in Nuevo Leon state.
Troops fought back, killing 18 gunmen, wounding two and detaining seven more suspects. One soldier suffered slight injuries.
Soldiers also seized 54 rifles, 61 hand grenades, rocket-propelled grenades, eight homemade explosive devices and six bulletproofed vehicles used by the attackers.
Earlier on Wednesday, authorities in the Gulf coast state of Tabasco announced that the nephew of one of Mexico's most-wanted drug gang leaders was captured together with a police chief accused of protecting a notorious cartel in a key port city.
Federal police detained Roberto Rivero Arana, who identified himself as the nephew of reputed Zetas gang leader Heriberto Lazcano, the Attorney General's Office said in a statement issued late Tuesday.
He was detained along with Daniel Perez, the acting police chief of Ciudad del Carmen, an oil hub in neighboring Campeche state. The statement alleged Perez received 200,000 pesos ($16,000) a month for protecting the Zetas.
The arrests come as the Zetas are under pressure from a bloody turf war with their former ally, the Gulf cartel. Authorities blame that fight for contributing to a surge of violence in Mexico's northeastern border states north of Tabasco and Campeche.
Perez was acting chief pending a permanent appointment, Ciudad del Carmen Mayor Aracely Escalante said Wednesday.
"He's an agent who had been with the police force long before we took over the town government," Escalante said. "We had given him our trust."
The two men were found with 10 assault rifles, a grenade, ammunition, drugs, police uniforms and worker suits with the logo of Mexico's state oil company, Pemex, the Attorney General's Office said.
Last week, Tabasco Gov. Andres Granier warned that the arrests of several suspected Zetas over the past several months could stoke turf battles in his region. He asked the federal government to send troops.
Meanwhile, the Mexican government announced that federal police will take over the anti-crime campaign currently headed by the army in the violent border city of Ciudad Juarez.
The army deployment has come under criticism from those who say soldiers are not trained for police work, and complaints they conducted illegal searches and detentions. But perhaps more important is the fact that killings have continued apace, even with troops in the city across the border from El Paso, Texas.
An unspecified number of soldiers will remain in Juarez to help combat drug gang violence that killed more than 2,600 people last year, and 500 more so far this year in the city of 1.3 million.
Starting Thursday, "the Mexican army will start gradually transferring responsibility for public safety to civilian authorities, to federal authorities at the beginning and gradually to state and local" forces, the Interior Department said in a news release.
The statement said 1,000 federal officers will be added to the police deployment in the city, bringing the number of federal agents to 4,500.
More than 7,000 troops had arrived in Juarez by mid-2009.
The department said the change was part of a new strategy to focus on social programs as an answer to the continuing violence.
The U.S. consulate in the northern city of Monterrey, meanwhile, warned American citizens who may be traveling for Easter week about recent battles in the northern states of Nuevo Leon, Coahuila and Durango. The consulate said U.S. citizens traveling by road from Monterrey to Texas "should be especially vigilant."
On Tuesday, a shootout between soldiers and gunmen left two people dead on the highway connecting Monterrey and Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, Texas.
The Defense Department said that the two dead were gunmen and that troops confiscated assault rifles and more than 10 grenades at the scene.
Less than two hours before the shootout, Nuevo Leon Gov. Rodrigo Medina assured citizens that authorities had regained control over the state's highways.
"I've found the highways calm. We ask that if citizens have plans to go out and enjoy these vacations, they should do so," Medina said.
That same day, at least 12 people were killed in separate shootouts in the state of Tamaulipas, which borders Nuevo Leon. Among them were seven gunmen killed while exchanging gunfire with soldiers on the outskirts of Reynosa, state government officials said.
Elsewhere, four severed human heads were found early Wednesday in Apatzingan, a town in the western state of Michoacan. Residents found the heads, with eyes still blindfolded, lined up at the foot of a monument along with a threatening message, state prosecutors said.