MEXICO CITY – Eight Mexican law enforcement officers were killed Saturday in a brazen attack on a police convoy transporting an important drug suspect to a prison in western Mexico.
Gunmen killed four federal police officers, two federal investigative agents and two prison employees in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the transfer, the Public Safety Department said.
"They fulfilled their duty with professionalism, commitment and dedication," the department said of the fallen officers.
The assailants have not been identified, but the department said the attack appeared to have been an attempt to free a top lieutenant of the Beltran-Leyva cartel named Jeronimo Gamez, who was arrested on the outskirts of Mexico City in January.
Gamez was taken from Mexico City to an airport in the Pacific coast state of Nayarit, and from there was being transported overland to a prison in the state capital, Tepic.
Police said gunmen in three vehicles opened fire shortly after the police convoy left the Nayarit airport.
Gamez and eight other suspects were successfully delivered to the prison.
Such attacks have occurred in the past, but seldom with such ferocity. Prisoners in Mexico are often transported in convoys of regular SUVs, pickups or buses accompanied by heavily armed officers. Federal police do have armored trucks for prisoner transports, but it was unclear whether such vehicles were used in the Saturday convoy.
Prosecutors say Gamez is a cousin of Arturo Beltran Leyva, one of Mexico's most powerful drug lords.
They have accused Gamez of acting as Beltran Leyva's representative in negotiating drug deals with Colombian traffickers.
Mexico has been suffering a continuing wave of drug-related violence. More than 10,650 people have been killed in drug violence in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon sent out 45,000 troops in 2006 to directly confront the traffickers.