By Chris Hawley -
Republic Mexico City Bureau
Mexico's drug cartels are becoming increasingly skilled at ambushing police and soldiers, luring them into traps, cutting off escape routes with flaming vehicles and overwhelming their targets in commando-style raids.
The attacks have driven the death toll of police and soldiers to record levels this year and fueled fears that government forces, often outgunned by the cartels, are now being out-strategized as well.
"These are war-fighting tactics they're using," said Javier Cruz Angulo, an expert on crime at the Center for Economic Investigation and Education, a graduate school in Mexico City. "It's gone way beyond the normal strategies of organized crime."
On Monday, gunmen sealed off a highway with buses that they set ablaze, boxing in a convoy of federal police trucks in Michoacan. They launched a gunbattle from high ground on both sides of the highway, killing 12 of the officers. Then they whisked away their own dead and wounded.
The ambushes, and an apparently unrelated clash between prison drug gangs that killed 29, contributed to a record 95 drug-trade-related deaths Monday - the most since President Felipe Calderon launched a crackdown in December 2006.
On Tuesday, a shootout with police in the tourist town of Taxco killed 14 alleged cartel members.
In all, 324 police officers and soldiers have been killed so far in 2010, compared with 511 in all of 2009, according to the Reforma newspaper.
"This is not beginner stuff," said Samuel Gonzalez Ruiz, a law professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "They're getting more sophisticated and spending more time training."
The wave of ambushes began on July 11, 2009 when the Familia Michoacana drug gang launched 15 coordinated attacks over two days on police stations and patrols in eight cities across three states. In one attack, gunmen surrounded a police bus and killed all 12 officers on board.
Since then, there have been at least 12 similar ambushes. Gunmen often use anonymous callers to lure patrols down blocked streets.
In one of the most dramatic attacks, gunmen hijacked 16 vehicles, including buses and tractor-trailers, to block streets around a military garrison in the northern city of Reynosa on March 30.
They then launched an attack on soldiers leaving the base. The soldiers managed to repel the attack and the gunmen fled. Other ambushes include:
- April 24: A street vendor flags down a police convoy in Ciudad Juarez. When it stops, three vehicles block the convoy in and assailants open fire, killing six federal police officers, a city policeman and a civilian.
- April 9: Three police officers carrying out an arrest warrant in western Guerrero state are surrounded by 10 gunmen armed with assault rifles. The gunmen kill them in a hail of 450 bullets.
- Feb. 20: Two patrolmen and a detective are lured to a beer distributor in Nogales with an anonymous call reporting a robbery. Gunmen open fire, killing the detective and wounding the patrolmen.
- Jan. 29: Gunmen fire from an overpass and both sides of a highway as a federal police convoy passes near the western town of Maravatemo. Five officers are killed and seven wounded.