It took six months of intelligence work for the police to corner a man suspected of being one of western Mexico’s top drug bosses. But retaliation came swiftly, as his lieutenants struck repeatedly in the two days after his arrest.
In several reprisal attacks across the western state of Michoacán this weekend, gunmen attacked federal police posts and one military base, killing three federal officers and two soldiers, the police said.
The attacks, which also injured 18 police officers, began after federal officers arrested the man accused of drug charges, Arnoldo Rueda Medina, early Saturday morning in the state capital, Morelia. The police said Mr. Rueda was one of two top operations chiefs for the drug cartel La Familia.
Michoacán, where pine-forested mountains in the east descend into a barren sierra that drops down sharply before reaching the Pacific Coast, has been a central battleground in President Felipe Calderón’s war against drug cartels.
Just days after Mr. Calderón took office in December 2006, he initiated his war by sending troops into Michoacán, where he was born and grew up.
An estimated 45,000 soldiers have now been sent around Mexico, mostly in northern and western states. In May, Mr. Calderón again made Michoacán the front line in a new phase of the drug war when federal authorities arrested 10 mayors and 17 government and police officials, accusing them of protecting drug cartels.
Security analysts have long argued that to wrest control of territory from the cartels, the government needs to prosecute the politicians who give protection.
Washington has supported Mr. Calderón’s battle, beginning with the Bush administration and continuing under President Obama. About $1.4 billion in anti-drug aid has been proposed for Mexico and Central America. But the Mexican military’s actions have also prompted a growing number of complaints of human rights violations.
On Sunday, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, arguing that Mexico has not met human rights standards attached to the release of 15 percent of the funds.
Police officers arrested Mr. Rueda, and a 17-year-old caretaker, before dawn on Saturday at a safe house at the edge of Morelia. He had several houses and spent nights in them alternately.
Minutes after he was taken to the main federal police post in Morelia, gunmen threw grenades and fired at the post with high-power weapons in an effort to free him. Officers repelled the attack, and the gunmen fled.
“The arrest was clean,” said Gen. Rodolfo Cruz, a federal police commander. “Afterwards, they tried to rescue him, and that was when these clashes began.”
On Saturday, gunmen attacked federal police barracks in Patzcuaro, a colonial town outside the capital; a hotel where police are housed in the farming town Apatzingán; a police barracks in the port of Lázaro Cárdenas; a police convoy outside the farming town Nueva Italia; and a police base in Huetamo. Two other attacks took place in states just beyond the state’s border.
The federal police said that the attacks continued Sunday before dawn when gunmen fired on a hotel housing police officers in Lázaro Cárdenas. At 9 a.m., men in a truck fired on a federal police patrol in a nearby town. One gunman died and two were arrested, the federal police said.
The three police officers killed Saturday were attacked on a road near Zitácuaro, near a monarch butterfly reserve, where they had responded to an accident. Gunmen drove by in a convoy and shot the officers.
Gunmen killed the two off-duty soldiers as they returned to their barracks in the city of Zamora.
General Cruz said the gunmen exploited the element of surprise.
“The truck would pass, and they would spray bullets,” he said. “They wouldn’t stop. They wouldn’t engage. They just would shoot at the installations, throw grenades, fire high-caliber weapons, and then they would abandon their vehicles, disperse and disappear into the crowd or into the mountains.”
By ELISABETH MALKIN
Published: July 12, 2009