A bloody ambush on a police unit in the state of México, in which 13 officials were shot dead, is exposing the Mexican government’s failure to control escalating violence outside of the capital.
Eight members of the México state police and five officials from the state Attorney General’s Office were gunned down March 18 while on patrol in Coatepec Harinas, a few hours outside of Mexico City, officials reported.
The confrontation, which caught the officers off guard in broad daylight, lasted just under an hour. Audio recordings revealed that the officers were desperately calling for backup but were outmatched by the gunmen, who used high-caliber weapons and left more than 250 bullet casings at the scene, according to the state’s attorney general.
Approximately 15 men in three vehicles participated in the ambush, according to one resident. Others said the gunmen circulated through the area before the ambush, telling people to stay inside because “there was going to be something.”
Control of the state of México is currently under dispute by various criminal groups, including the Familia Michoacana and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG). The Familia Michoacana occupies the southern parts of the state near Guerrero, Michoacán and Morelos. The CJNG controls the parts closer to Mexico City.
Because the municipality of Coatepec Harinas is closer to the southeast part of the state, near the border with Morelos, the ambush appears to be the work of the Familia Michoacana, local reports suggest. But nothing has been confirmed.
The Familia Michoacana, which has splintered and lost power in recent years, moved into the state of México from Michoacán in the early 2000s.
InSight Crime analysis
The deadly ambush on police forces is a stark reminder that Mexico’s small, hyper-violent criminal groups, which can resemble mini-armies, are capable of coordinated armed attacks on authorities – even close to the nation’s capital.
The state of México is a strategic stronghold for criminal groups because it is sandwiched between the capital and other states with important drug trafficking operations. Michoacán, to the west, is a prominent fentanyl trafficking hub. Guerrero, to the east, is a leader in poppy cultivation.
Prosecutors told local media that the gunmen had targeted state authorities for a simple reason — retaliation for another shootout. Earlier this month, state police and the Attorney General’s Office managed to confiscate three luxury vehicles and a notebook containing information about lookouts and drug stashes.
Ambushes of authorities have become commonplace in Mexico, especially where criminal groups are trying to maintain control of disputed territory. Last year, three police officers carrying out a patrol in Zacatecas were shot dead by a faction of the CJNG.
The year prior, also while carrying out a patrol, 13 officers in Michoacán were killed by surprise gunfire and grenades. Such incidents, experts say, can be a way for criminal groups to test the limits of their power against the government.
Past ambushes in Mexico have seen officials respond by ordering large military units and helicopters to sweep cartel-controlled areas. But the results of those efforts are hit and miss at best, and there is little accountability if officials ultimately fail.
Whether the latest ambush will receive a similar response has yet to be seen. México state’s attorney general announced a nearly US $25,000 reward for information on three men thought to be involved in the ambush. And dozens of people have been detained for questioning.
However, the massacre has all but fallen out of the news cycle, with some commentators pointing out that, shockingly, it had barely registered in the media in the first place.
Max Radwin is a writer at InsightCrime, a think tank dedicated to researching and reporting on organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean.