The young marine received the highest military honors that the Mexican state could offer. Killed during a raid that ended the life of a notorious drug lord, the marine was buried a hero, ushered to his grave by an honor guard of commandos in camouflage, his mother awarded a folded flag.
Hours later, the grieving mother, the marine’s sister, his brother and an aunt were mowed down by gunmen in a revenge attack that sent a chilling message to the Mexican military combating drug traffickers.
The slaughter of Melquisedet Angulo Cordova’s family early Tuesday horrified Mexicans seemingly inured to a drug-war brutality that has claimed more than 15,000 lives in three years of spectacular violence. The killing, especially, of a mother seemed to violate the most basic code of conduct that even coldblooded hit men and traffickers obeyed.
Was it a mistake to have so publicly identified the family of the felled combatant? Military commandos carry out their dangerous missions with their faces covered by masks and with no hint of personal identity.
By contrast, the Angulo family had been seen in newspaper photos and on television, first during an elaborate memorial ceremony at navy headquarters over the weekend and then at the marine’s funeral Monday in his home state of Tabasco. It appeared that no special protection was provided for the family.
Angulo, 30, died in a fierce gun battle a week ago in the city of Cuernavaca when navy special forces attacked the hide-out of Arturo Beltran Leyva, head of a major narco-trafficking organization. Beltran Leyva and six of his gunmen were killed in what the government immediately hailed as an important victory in the war on organized crime -- and one it was eager to celebrate.
Officials at the time also predicted more violence as Beltran Leyva’s lieutenants might fight for control of the organization and other cartels would push to seize pieces of Beltran Leyva’s empire. Instead, the first blow appears to have been an act of revenge and intimidation.
Beltran Leyva, who split with the powerful Sinaloa cartel, had allied with the so-called Zetas, ruthless gunmen who authorities speculated might be responsible for the slaying of Angulo’s family members.
“The message was to the military and to the government, that if you hit us hard, we will respond in unprecedented ways,” said Raul Benitez, a security expert. “This is the wrath of the Beltran Leyva family. It is very worrisome and should put the entire government on alert.”
The decision by officials to show off pictures of Beltran Leyva’s body -- half undressed and covered in peso bills -- may also have goaded the dead trafficker’s allies into such depraved retaliation, several experts said.
President Felipe Calderon condemned the killings as “cowardly, barbaric” acts that showed a complete “lack of scruples” by criminal gangs. But he vowed to press ahead with the military-led offensive that has deployed about 45,000 troops across the nation.
Critics said the slaying of the Angulo family members exposed a serious security lapse emblematic of the government’s troubled offensive against the powerful drug cartels, which Calderon launched shortly after taking office in December 2006. The gunmen evidently had no trouble locating the marine’s home, suggesting they had benefited from inside information.
“This has shown the inability of the state to offer protection to its frontline troops,” said Ricardo Aleman, a columnist for El Universal newspaper.
“We do not have the training, intelligence or other elements to wage this war.”
Prosecutors in Tabasco said the gunmen converged on the family home in at least three vehicles shortly after midnight. They burst into the small residence where the family slept and opened fire.
The mother, Irma Cordova, 48, was killed by a single gunshot. Angulo’s sister Yolidabey, 22, was hit by seven bullets; the aunt, Josefa Angulo, 46, by 10. A 28-year-old brother, Benito, was shot once and died later at a hospital.
Nearly three dozen spent bullet casings were found in the house, state prosecutor Rafael Gonzalez said.
Army troops canvassed the area Tuesday. No suspects had been arrested.
Javier Ibarrola, an expert on the Mexican military, described the attack as “unprecedented,” yet also predictable.
“What is really most alarming is that there wasn’t the intelligence to foresee this, to adequately study what the traffickers’ reactions were going to be,” Ibarrola said, adding that it was no longer possible for the government to dismiss deadly violence as mere “killing among cartels.”
“We are not facing a criminal group but a corps of combatants who are going to exact revenge and take territory from the government,” he said on Mexican television. “The government is not prepared for this. Presidential speeches do not scare them.”
Angulo’s mother had spoken to reporters Monday at the funeral, telling them how important her children were to her.
“Thinking as a mother, I used to feel very sad and hurt for the families of soldiers and police who had been killed. It would make me cry,” she said. “And now, now it is my turn.”
Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.