As dozens of gunmen fired more than 2,700 deafening rounds of ammunition, Minerva Bautista crouched on the floor of her heavily armored SUV, screaming into her radio for backup and thinking one thing: “I know help will come.”
But when the minister of security for Michoacan state heard the rounds begin to penetrate her car’s armor, sending pieces of metal into her back “like fiery sparks,” her faith faltered. And when one of her badly injured bodyguards asked her to take care of his family, she lost hope.
“They didn’t just want to kill us,” she said later. “They wanted to destroy us.”
A seemingly interminable 15 minutes after the attack began in a narrow highway pass that night in April, rescuers finally arrived.
It was one of the most brazen assaults on a top state official in President Felipe Calderon’s nearly 4-year-old offensive against drug cartels. But there is an even darker side to the story, one that exposes a fundamental flaw in the war: So deep is drug-financed corruption, the lead suspects in the attack on Bautista are the very police she commands.
Four people were killed, but Bautista, 36, suffered only relatively minor wounds. At least as remarkable as her survival is the fact that she has returned to the top security job here in Calderon’s home state, where a notorious drug gang called La Familia has penetrated most police and judicial bodies.
She no longer lives at home with her parents but in a safe house, and she moves around with a mini-army of soldiers as guards. Public knowledge of her schedule is kept deliberately vague; her once customary visits to city halls, neighborhoods, schools and prison yards now curtailed. And she has had to recalibrate how, and whom, to trust.
“Of course I am afraid … but I have an even greater conviction now to keep working,” Bautista told The Times in her first post-attack interview with a non-Mexican publication.
“If I don’t do it, another colleague will have to,” she said. “It would be a very negative message to the people of Michoacan if authorities, faced with this situation, say, ‘Let’s get out of here.’”
Tall and thin, with her blond-highlighted hair pulled in a tight ponytail, Bautista wears lots of blue eye shadow, a sparkling crucifix and a denim shirt with the logo, “Michoacan is working.” She steps gingerly but with precision, feeling the metal pieces of shrapnel still lodged in her back and one leg. She smiles and laughs easily, despite the tension engulfing her surroundings.
It’s a long way from her days as a schoolteacher and school union activist. A third-generation native of Michoacan, she sank herself into politics, joining the leftist Democratic Revolution Party that has ruled the state for most of the last decade and eventually catching the eye of Gov. Leonel Godoy. Last year he plucked her from a mid-level position in the Public Security Ministry, where she had gravitated after leaving the classroom, and placed her in the top job.
Bautista says she wanted to represent Godoy’s idea of a “new face” for public security, one that emphasized citizen participation, education and prevention programs over military might. But one way or another, she managed to cross La Familia.
As part of the investigation of the attempted assassination, more than 100 police officers have been interrogated and their weapons submitted to ballistics tests in a search for suspects, a search that has proved fruitless.
La Familia, known for producing methamphetamine and decapitating enemies, has undermined all attempts to crack down on cartels and restore law and order. Three senior members of the Security Ministry were killed last year, and Bautista’s predecessor was arrested on drug-trafficking charges.
These are scenarios that, with one drug gang or another, have been repeated across Mexico. But in contrast with other parts of the country, Michoacan authorities have not conducted a major purge of local police forces, another sign of La Familia’s sway.
Authorities suspect corrupt cops tipped gunmen loyal to La Familia to Bautista’s movements and route that April night.
Her would-be killers chose well. The spot on the highway where they attacked is flanked by embankments that gave gunmen the advantage of height. They moved a stolen cargo truck across the highway to block her vehicle’s escape.
The area is also a spot where cellular telephone and radio signals are spotty. That and the chaos of the moment delayed help. Initially she couldn’t even raise anybody on her radio.
She acknowledges there was negligence, or worse. Police patrols that were supposed to be tending the area had not materialized.
“They planned it very well, and we failed in providing the vigilance necessary,” she said. “It was an attack from which I wouldn’t expect we would emerge alive. Only later did we realize fully the magnitude of the attack.”
For the first 10 minutes, she was confident help would come. But as time under the relentless barrage of grenades and .50-caliber rounds dragged on, she prepared to die.
The state prosecutor’s office later said more than 2,700 spent shells were collected from the scene and that about 350 ammo rounds hit Bautista’s car. Three grenades also hit it but somehow failed to detonate.
The gunmen fled when they heard the shouts of arriving state police. The bloody aftermath of dust, smoke, agonized screams and destroyed vehicles included four dead: two civilian motorists, who happened to be on the road, and two of Bautista’s entourage.
“This kind of thing makes you reflect, and one thought I had was … to quit. But it would have been a defeat,” she said. “I used to be very trusting of everybody, and now I am extremely suspicious. I’m more observant of people, what they do, what they say, details I might not have noticed before.”
Bautista is not married and has no children, which is why, until the attack, she continued to live with her parents, an arrangement typical in Mexico. Were she a mother, she said, her willingness to put her life on the line might be different. She hopes to marry soon — her boyfriend works in security in her department.
The assassination attempt essentially wiped out an entire shift of her regular protection. Guards previously seconded from the state police force have now been augmented by the better-trained, better-armed military.
The time and venue of the interview with The Times was changed twice and finally took place in a hotel. There, seating was chosen based on the ability to guard two access points. A contingent of soldiers surrounded the hotel. Other well-armed guards in body armor and attached to radios flanked the table where Bautista sat with a reporter and two aides.
It remains a matter of speculation as to exactly why she was targeted — whom she offended or betrayed and how, and who ordered her death. Bautista says she had not received threats, and consequently hadn’t taken extraordinary security measures. She suggested that her work, including a number of changes in the leadership of public security departments, had “created discomfort” and may have led to the attempted assassination.
Other Michoacan sources said, however, that several e-mail messages were sent to Bautista this year purporting to be from La Familia and ordering her to step down. In Michoacan, that is the kind of warning that you ignore at your peril.
In the interview, Bautista downplayed the role of her police in the attack, saying that was one of several lines of investigation. But she also acknowledged that the culprits probably would never be arrested and prosecuted, and that would be a shame, she said.
“I hope there are eventually arrests because these are people prepared to do absolutely anything, acting completely in cold blood,” she said. “As cases go unresolved, there is more impunity, and criminals, common ones and the ones in organized crime, know they can get away with it. Nothing happens to them.”
Bautista supports a federal government plan to consolidate police forces and create a single police agency for each state, loyal to a single command. This would eliminate scores of easily corruptible municipal police forces and, in theory, enhance security.
But a lot of Bautista’s plans for reforming state security are on hold now, and she’s turning greater attention to technology, such as the use of 500 new surveillance cameras here in Morelia, a colonial city known for its picturesque architecture before it became the center of La Familia terror.
“I am very worried about the situation, and it makes me rethink what we are doing,” Bautista said. “We saw how vulnerable we are.”