MORELIA, Mexico – Grieving family members of the 13 police officers killed in an apparent cartel ambush gathered outside a funeral home in the Mexican state of Michoacan on Tuesday, many of them angry at the government and police chiefs they believe sent their loved ones to a certain death.
“The good ones are here,” said the brother of slain officer Marco Antonio González, 20, gesturing at the massive funeral hall.
“And those responsible for this, they are also here,” he said just as the state’s police chief and his top brass got out of cars. The man and other relatives refused to give their names for fear of reprisals in the western state where violence blamed on drug gangs has jumped in recent months.
More than 30 suspected cartel gunmen waylaid the police officers in the town of El Aguaje on Monday as they were travelling in a convoy to serve a warrant. Nine officers were also wounded in the worst attack on Mexican law enforcement in years.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called the attack “regrettable” but said he remains committed to his security approach emphasizing tackling underlying social problems, which he often references as “hugs, not bullets,” in the face of national homicide figures that have been setting all-time highs.
“We are going to continue with our strategy,” López Obrador said Tuesday, adding he is “optimistic” that peace can be achieved in the country.
“This is a violent area and we are going to continue addressing the causes that create this social decomposition,” the president said. “For us it is very important for there to be well-being, that peace with justice can be achieved … and also avoiding that authorities mix with crime.”
Signs left at the scene of the attack in the town of El Aguaje, Aguililla municipality, were apparently signed by the Jalisco New Generation cartel, one of Mexico’s most powerful gangs.
While López Obrador vowed to continue his strategy of avoiding violence, many doubt it will work.
Raymundo Zavala, an office worker and resident of the Michoacan state capital of Morelia, longs for the days of Felipe Calderón, who waged an all-out offensive against drug cartels during his 2006-2012 presidency.
“There has to be a strategy like Calderón’s in his time,” Zavala said. “Although things were more armoured, it was safer. … There was more order.”
At the funeral home in Morelia, relatives of the dead described a situation in which relatively young, new, lightly armed police were sent in to confront hardened foes with heavier armament, without any support.
González graduated from the police academy just nine months earlier; he left behind a 1-year-old son and a wife who is five months pregnant.
“They asked for help, reinforcements, and it never arrived,” his brother said, alluding to recordings of desperate radio calls sent out as the convoy came under intense fire.
The attackers let loose with .50 calibre sniper rifles and AR-15 and AK-47 assault rifles, and at least some were in armoured vehicles, state prosecutors said. Some of the officers’ bodies were still inside patrol trucks when they were set on fire.
Gonzalez’s brother suggested there must have been an informant and the officers were set up.
“They say this is not going to go unpunished, when we know that in this state everything goes unpunished,” the officer’s uncle said.
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El Aguaje is the reputed birthplace of Nemesio “Mencho” Oseguera, leader of the hyper-violent Jalisco New Generation.
After the attack, the area in western Mexico’s so-called “hot lands” was reinforced by federal and state security forces, which set up checkpoints to hunt for the assailants.
Michoacan, an important avocado-growing state, has recently has seen a spike in violence that has brought back memories of the bloodiest days of Mexico’s war on drug cartels between 2006 and 2012.
In August, police found 19 bodies in the town of Uruapan, including nine hung from a bridge. Later, an area roughly 45 miles (70 kilometres) north of Aguililla was the scene of fierce clashes between members of Jalisco New Generation and regional self-defence groups.
In 2013, civilian groups faced with what they said was state inaction armed themselves in Michoacan to fight the Knights Templar cartel, one of whose bases was Aguililla. They said they took up arms to defend themselves from kidnappings, extortion and killings by cartels.
But some of the self-defence or vigilante groups later became infiltrated by cartels and gangs, and the government launched a process to disarm, legalize and incorporate the vigilantes into official security forces.
Hipólito Mora, the founder of the self-defence movement in 2013, said flatly that the president’s strategy was doomed to fail.
“Until President Andrés Manuel López Obrador gets it out of his mind that organized crime can be addressed with hugs and kisses … nothing is going to change,” Mora said. On the contrary, he continued, “so far there have been more killings than ever. As of today it is clear that the government’s strategy has not worked.”
Besides avocado orchards, Michoacan for decades has been known for marijuana plantations and the making of methamphetamine. It is home to the port of Lazaro Cárdenas, a trial entry point for precursor chemicals used to make synthetic drugs.
Associated Press writer Peter Orsi in Mexico City contributed to this report.