Richard Marosi, Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2009
Heavily armed gunmen staged a series of surprise attacks against municipal police forces in this tense border city, killing seven and wounding three in brazen assaults that shattered a four-month period of relative calm.
Six police officers and an auxiliary officer died within a 45-minute span late Monday in ambushes at a hillside substation, on busy streets and outside an OXXO mini-mart, where four were killed in a hail of bullets, including one who tried to fight back.
With authorities placing the blame on organized crime gunmen, municipal police Tuesday retreated to substations and headquarters and patrolled mostly in groups or with army escorts. The tension was palpable outside the 8th Street headquarters downtown, where motorcycle cops were being held back from patrol until further notice.
Municipal police officers across Mexico have become frequent targets of organized crime groups vying to control drug-trafficking routes. More than 500 police officers and soldiers have been killed in Mexico since December 2006.
Monday’s attacks resulted in one of the biggest one-day police death tolls in recent memory.
It was too early to tell whether the assaults would re-trigger the drug war between rival gangs in Tijuana that raged last year, claiming about 800 lives. A military-led offensive has brought the capture of several key crime bosses and seemed to strike major blows against rival factions of the Arellano Felix drug cartel, which has long controlled drug trafficking in the border city.
In the first quarter of this year, the number of homicides and kidnappings plunged in Tijuana, but police have remained on edge.
The 2,200-member Tijuana police force has seen its ranks purged of hundreds of officers in the last year, many of them fired for suspected corruption. And 14 have been killed since the beginning of the year.
In key drug-trafficking corridors such as Tijuana, police are typically shot down for running afoul of organized-crime groups, either for trying to do their jobs or for siding with rival gangs. Sometimes, the killings are meant to frighten the already demoralized police.
Tijuana’s secretary of public security, Julian Leyzaola, who has lashed out against corrupt cops, said Tuesday that the officers killed Monday appeared to have been targeted as part of an intimidation campaign.
Some of the officers were shot in the back, and the auxiliary officers were unarmed, he said. He called the gunmen “cowardly bandits” who don’t show their faces and shoot their victims in the back.
Authorities said the attacks, by men firing AK-47 rifles from late model cars and SUVs, were preceded by a spate of threats over police radio frequencies. Such threats are so common, Leyzaola said, that authorities didn’t feel a need to take precautionary measures.