MEXICO CITY (AP) – An attack on a police convoy in the western Mexico state of Jalisco killed 15 state police officers and wounded five, marking the deadliest single attack on police in Mexico in recent memory.
The Monday ambush in a rural area of Jalisco left police vehicles riddled with bullet holes. It was the largest death toll in a single attack on law enforcement since 12 federal police officers were killed in neighboring state of Michoacan in 2010.
The Jalisco state prosecutors' office said several officers had been hit in the shootout late Monday in a rural area as the police convoy traveled between the Pacific coast resort of Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara, the state capital.
Jalisco is home to a drug cartel known as "Jalisco New Generation," which experts say is now among Mexico's most powerful. Prosecutors would not confirm the gang was involved in the attack, but it was hard to imagine any rival gang launching such a large attack on Jalisco's home turf.
While state Security Commissioner Alejandro Solorio did not say how the attack was carried out, he said the convoy was "ambushed" in a "cowardly attack."
Raul Benitez, a security expert at Mexico's National Autonomous University, "the serious thing about this attack was that it was very well planned and orchestrated, with a military-style strategy." Local media reported that a vehicle was hijacked, parked across the two-lane road and set on fire, to force the convoy to stop.
"This was planned, a lot of gunmen were involved, they blocked the highway to surround them (police) and attack with military superiority," said Benitez.
Benitez said it was the first time a cartel appeared to be mounting a direct, head-on challenge to authorities. "The Jalisco cartel has decided to start a military offensive against security forces, and that is rare," Benitez said. While gunmen from other cartels have been known to open fire on police and soldiers, it is usually because they are being pursued and want to escape capture, Benitez said.
Moreover, the ambush in the township of Soyatan, Jalisco is just the latest in a two-week-long series of attacks.
On March 19, gunmen in Jalisco ambushed a federal police convoy, killing five officers.
On March 30, gunmen ambushed and tried to kill Solorio, the state security commissioner. He escaped unharmed.
And on Monday, gunmen killed the police chief of another Jalisco town, Zacoalco de Torres.
Solorio said the most recent attacks are in retaliation for the March 23 shootout in which police killed gang boss Heriberto Acevedo Cardenas, who is nicknamed "El Gringo."
Jalisco state prosecutor Luis Carlos Najera had previously identified Acevedo Cardenas as the mastermind behind a May 2014 ambush of Mexican army troops in another part of Jalisco state that killed four soldiers and injured two.
Authorities said at the time that attack was carried out by the Jalisco New Generation cartel in reprisal for the army's seizure of stolen gasoline.
Ambushes of state-level security officials and Mexican army patrols are relatively rare in Mexico.
The Jalisco attacks suggest the conflict there is reaching a new level. The cartel has been violent since it was founded in 2010 following the death of Jalisco-based Sinaloa cartel leader Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel.
In November 2013, Jalisco state authorities linked Jalisco New Generation to dozens of bodies discovered in mass graves in the community of La Barca near Lake Chapala, which is popular with Canadian and U.S. expatriates and tourists.
Officials believe the New Generation cartel was behind the dumping of 35 bodies on a busy street in the Gulf coast city of Veracruz in 2011, during a turf battle with the Zetas drug gang.
"It appears that the Jalisco cartel is getting stronger, and wants to take over the role that the Knights Templar (cartel) had," Benitez said, referring to a rival gang that built an economic empire based on extortion, drugtrafficking and illegal mining the neighboring state of Michoacan, before police and vigilantes largely dismantled the gang in 2013 and 2014.