MEXICO CITY – The sons of imprisoned drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman were likely behind a brazen ambush on a military convoy using grenades and high-powered guns that left five soldiers dead and 10 wounded on Friday, officials said.
The attack in Mexico's northern Sinaloa state left two military vehicles completely burned out and dead soldiers scattered across a highway. It was apparently launched to free a wounded drug suspect being transported in an ambulance guarded by the convoy.
"Up this point we are not certain about this group, but it is very probable that it was the sons of Chapo," said local military commander Gen. Alfonso Duarte.
The pre-dawn ambush was the worst attack on military personnel since 2015, when drug cartel gunmen in the state of Jalisco shot down an army helicopter with a rocket launcher, killing 10 people.
Friday's attack on the outskirts of Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state, was unusual for the Sinaloa cartel, which Guzman headed until he was re-arrested in January.
Some believe his sons are now running the gang and have changed the rules of engagement long practiced by the father, who kept a low profile until last year. However others say "El Chapo's" longtime partner Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada is in control.
The fierceness of the attack suggested that whoever was travelling in the ambulance escorted by the convoy was a high-ranking member of the cartel, or a person of interest to the gang.
"These groups acted with cowardice, in a premeditated manner, and the carried out the attack with weapons, with grenades," while the soldiers had only automatic weapons, said Duarte.
Duarte said the attack was launched to free the suspect, who he identified as Julio Oscar Ortiz Vega, though he acknowledged the name might be a pseudonym.
Duarte said the wounded man had been picked up by soldiers following a gun fight in Badiraguato, Guzman's hometown. Duarte said that Guzman's brother, known by his nickname as "El Guano," has been fighting a turf battle against the Beltran Leyva cartel in the area "to control the means of drug production," which include opium poppy fields.
The Defense Department said in a statement that an army patrol had been attacked in Badiraguato and returned fire; the wounded man was taken into custody when the rest of the attackers fled.
Because local hospitals couldn't give him the care he needed, an army patrol was taking him to Culiacan when it came under attack. The attackers took the ambulance and the wounded suspect before fleeing. Among those wounded in the convoy were the ambulance driver and one soldier who suffered severe injuries.
Meanwhile, authorities in Jalisco said Thursday they have found a total of nine bodies near a lake popular with tourists.
Jalisco state Attorney General Eduardo Almaguer said the bodies of eight men and one woman have not yet been identified, in part because of the rural nature of the area and the lack of witnesses.
The bodies have been found over the last few days in a river that leads out of the eastern end of Lake Chapala, near the border with the state of Michoacan. In 2013, 64 bodies were found in mass graves in area nearby.
That is the opposite end of the lake from the town of Chapala, popular among tourists and American retirees.