Forces hiked to counter drug gang in Mexican state

Federal police participate this week in the Mexico City funeral for 12 fellow officers whose bodies were found in a heap in the western state of Michoacan. The La Familia drug gang is suspected of killing them.
(AFP/Getty Images)

Mexican authorities announced plans Thursday to send 5,500 police officers and military personnel to the western state of Michoacan to confront a violent crime syndicate offering some of the fiercest resistance President Felipe Calderon’s government has faced since launching its war on drugs 2 1/2 years ago.

About 1,000 extra police officers were deployed Thursday before officials outlined the broader buildup. The move, which included providing helicopters and other equipment, represented a show of resolve in Calderon’s home state, a major drug-trafficking corridor where 16 police officers have been killed recently in well-coordinated attacks. Following the assaults, police have patrolled in convoys and curtailed nighttime operations as a way to avoid further casualties.

One Mexican pundit said the recent aggressiveness by the drug-trafficking group La Familia was the equivalent of the surprise 1968 Tet offensive by communist forces in the Vietnam War.

Michoacan is a key front in the drug war. The federal government’s move to deploy more forces there, which reportedly included shifting officers from violence-ridden Ciudad Juarez, would bolster the 300 officers already assigned to Michoacan. The government said the buildup would consist of 2,500 soldiers, 1,500 federal police and 1,500 naval personnel.

The gang’s gunmen are believed responsible for more than a dozen attacks against federal police, including the slayings of 12 off-duty officers Monday whose bodies were dumped in a ghastly heap near the state’s Pacific coast. Attackers have sprayed gunfire and hurled grenades at police installations throughout Michoacan and shot at officers in the field.

The recent string of attacks began Saturday, after Mexican forces captured Arnoldo Rueda Medina, who allegedly served as the right-hand man for the group’s founder, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, known as “El Mas Loco,” or “The Craziest One.”

The Calderon administration appears serious about pursuing La Familia, said Stephen Meiners, a Latin America analyst at Stratfor, a global- intelligence firm in Austin, Texas. The group has fast become one of Mexico’s most formidable crime syndicates.

“The number of attacks and ability to coordinate them . . . is a reflection of La Familia’s organizational capabilities,” Meiners said. “Part of what [Calderon is] trying to do is assure the Mexican population that things are under control.”

But the increase of forces in Michoacan appeared to show the strains on Mexico’s drug-war capabilities.

The border city of Ciudad Juarez had received hundreds of new officers in March amid soaring killings.

The beefed-up deployment in Michoacan came after a bizarre exchange between Mexican officials and a man who claimed to be Servando Gomez Martinez, the gang’s reputed operations chief.

The man called a Michoacan television phone-in show Wednesday and urged the government to reach an accord with La Familia, which he said had been unfairly targeted by police.

During a meandering explanation of the group’s beliefs, the caller professed respect for Calderon and the Mexican military. But he accused federal police of going easy on other drug gangs and rounding up innocent people, including relatives of La Familia members.

A teenager identified as a nephew of Gomez Martinez was arrested this week in the central state of Guanajuato on suspicion of killing a federal officer.

“They are attacking our families,” the caller complained. “We want to reach consensus, we want to reach a national pact.”

A few hours later, the nation’s interior minister, Fernando Gomez Mont, called a news conference to publicly reject the offer, even though officials said they were not sure whether the caller was the person he claimed to be.

“The federal government neither talks nor makes agreements, nor will ever negotiate with any criminal organization,” Gomez Mont declared. “It fights against all criminal groups equally.”

He warned that the government crackdown would continue. Senators from Mexico’s main political parties joined Thursday in rejecting deals with drug traffickers.

Drug traffickers once worked relatively unfettered in Mexico through unofficial arrangements with the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ran government at all levels before losing to Calderon’s party in 2000. Pacts were a favored tactic of the PRI as a way to resolve competing political and social interests, avoid turmoil and maintain its grip.

But democratic change in Mexico, which opened politics to other parties, has muddied the rules for drug traffickers and contributed to more conflicts and violence, analysts say.

Calderon, a conservative, declared war on organized crime soon after taking office in December 2006. He has sent 45,000 soldiers and 5,000 federal police into trafficking hot spots.

The effort has yielded a number of high-profile arrests and big seizures of drugs and guns. But the escalating death toll -- now at more than 11,000 --frightens many Mexicans, and polls show most people think the government is losing.

The effort has also laid bare the extent of corruption by police and other public officials.

As part of the investigation into the attacks against police in Michoacan, federal authorities said this week that they were seeking the arrest of Julio Cesar Godoy.

Godoy, a lawyer and the half brother of state Gov. Leonel Godoy, is suspected of helping provide protection for La Familia. He was elected to Congress last week.

In a speech Thursday, Calderon sought to reassure Mexicans of the government’s goals.

“We want a Mexico without fear, we want a free Mexico,” Calderon said.

“We know that one day Mexico will be free, one day Mexico will be the safe country we yearn for.”