12 Mexican Police Killed in Ambush

(Note: La Familia Michoacán is not to be confused with La Familia/The Family International)

Meixco City, Mexico - Twelve federal policemen were killed in an ambush Monday in a state racked by drug violence about three hours west of the capital.

Mexican federal police said the slain officers were ambushed in the center of Zitácuaro in the western state of Michoacán. An unknown number of officers were wounded.

In a separate incident, 28 inmates, most believed to belong to an organized-crime group known as the Zetas, were killed in a prison riot in the Pacific coast city of Mazatlán in the state of Sinaloa.

Monday's events signal that Mexico's cycle of drug violence is intensifying a month before key elections in eight states.

At least 70 people were killed, including 19 patients at a drug rehabilitation center in the border state of Chihuahua, on Friday—a day deemed by local media as the most violent yet since President Felipe Calderón sent troops and federal police to battle drug cartels shortly after becoming president in December 2006.

A spokesman for the federal police said the identity of the gunmen who attacked the police officers in Michoacán wasn't yet known. "We are investigating," he said.

But analysts said the gunmen who killed the police officers are most likely members of La Familia, a powerful drug gang based in Michoacán, which has been engaged in a bloody war with rival groups as well as federal troops and police dispatched by Mr. Calderón to the state 3½ years ago.

"It's a dramatic statement to the lengths that La Familia is willing to go in order to defend its turf and routes against rivals and a stepped-up campaign by the Calderón government, which is deeply embarrassed over the grip that the Familia has over Michoacán," said Bruce Bagley, an expert on the Mexican drug trade at the University of Miami.

Minerva Bautista, Michoacán's public-security minister, told a local radio station that during Monday's ambush, gunmen blocked the highway the police were traveling on with heavy trucks.

Ms. Bautista herself barely escaped alive from a similar ambush in April, during which four police officers were killed.

Violence in the marijuana- and poppy-growing state of Michoacán has spiked as the state has become a battlefield for Mexican organized-crime groups fighting for control of the drug trade, including methamphetamine labs that have sprouted all over the state, which is known, among other things, as a refuge for Monarch butterflies.

La Familia has been fighting for control of its turf against other gangs, including the Zetas, onetime enforcers for the so-called Gulf cartel who have since broken with their previous employers.

La Familia employs extreme cruelty, with a fondness for decapitating victims, and has an evangelical, sect-like fervor. It wields vast political control in Michoacán, where it portrays itself as a Robin Hood-like defender of the people of the state against encroaching criminal groups.

Last year, Mexico detained 27 state and local Michoacán officials, including 10 mayors, many for questioning on their ties to the drug gang. Since then, most have been released.

More than 23,000 people have died since Mr. Calderón first cracked down on the country's powerful drug cartels.

The gangs have been fighting each other for control of routes to U.S. markets as well as fast-growing domestic markets, ones Mr. Bagley and others analysts say may be worth as much as $29 billion. Since then, the drug gangs have also expanded into other illegal businesses such as extortion, kidnapping and alien trafficking.

On Monday, Mexican television showed images of a burned-out bus in which the police officers were riding when they were attacked.

The police statement said police had killed a number of the gunmen in the battle, but the bodies of the slain had been removed by their colleagues.

"Federal police are continuing a search by land and air for the assailants," the statement said.