14 Police Officers Killed in an Ambush in Mexico

The attack, in an area drug gangs have battled over for decades, is a reminder of the challenges facing the president, who may end his first year with a record number of killings.

ImagePresident Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico has argued that the best way to attack organized crime is to eliminate corruption and address the root causes of poverty.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico has argued that the best way to attack organized crime is to eliminate corruption and address the root causes of poverty.CreditCreditMarco Ugarte/Associated Press

MEXICO CITY — Gunmen killed 14 police officers Monday after ambushing a convoy, federal officials said, in a bloody setback to the Mexican government’s efforts to curb the country’s spiraling violence.

The attack, in a part of the state of Michoacán that drug gangs have battled over for decades, bore the hallmarks of the hyper-violent New Generation Jalisco Cartel, which has emerged in recent years as one of Mexico’s dominant organized crime groups.

It was a sharp reminder of the challenge facing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who had promised to tackle the violence racking the country, but may end his first year in office on Dec. 1 with Mexico having had a record number of killings.

Mr. López Obrador has argued that the best way to attack organized crime is to eliminate corruption and address the root causes of poverty. He has also created a national militarized police force, the National Guard, and deployed it in the country’s most violent regions.

“You can’t fight fire with fire, I have said it many times,” Mr. López Obrador said Monday. “You can’t fight violence with violence, you can’t fight evil with evil — you have to fight evil by doing good.”

Early on Monday morning, before the attack, Alfonso Durazo, Mexico’s secretary for public security and the head of the government’s anti-crime strategy, had said that the country had reached an “inflection point” in the fight against organized crime. As evidence, he pointed to the slowing rate in the increase of homicides.

But that strategy has yet to show any results in Michoacán. Indeed, the federal government’s approach appears to have given organized crime groups in the state free rein to do battle, said Falko Ernst, the Mexico analyst for the International Crisis Group.

The Jalisco Cartel is battling an alliance of local groups over routes from Michoacán’s Tierra Caliente into the mountains of the Sierra Madre del Sur, said Mr. Ernst, who wrote his doctoral thesis on organized crime in Michoacán.

Violence has surged in the state in the past few months. In August, gangs left 19 bodies in the town of Uruapan, the center of Michoacan’s avocado industry.

Israel Patrón, the Michoacán state director of public security, said the police convoy consisted of 41 police officers who were going to pick up a woman and her daughter to testify as victims of domestic violence.

As they were crossing through the village of El Aguaje, they were attacked from behind by the armed gunmen, he said. The attack also injured three officers.

Federal and state forces, including the National Guard, were conducting a manhunt to find the attackers, Mr. Patrón said.

It “is not new in terms of violence,” Mr. Ernst said. “It’s more concentrated so you are producing a spectacle. So there is a symbolic language behind this.”

The Jalisco cartel has a history of attacks on state forces, he said, while their rivals in the state, the Knights Templar and the Viagras, try to maintain a better relationship with the police. The Jalisco Cartel is moving from the mountainous border between Jalisco and Michoacan into the Tierra Caliente region.

Control over that territory allows criminal gangs to produce drugs — including methamphetamine — and exert control over the local avocado and lime industries, Mr. Ernst said. The National Guard has been deployed in some parts of Tierra Caliente.

“It’s positive that the government is trying to address root causes” of crime, Mr. Ernst said. “But there is no short-term component of the strategy and that allows regional conflicts to spin out of control.”

Meanwhile, civilians are left unprotected in lawless regions like the Tierra Caliente, he said. “It’s an ad hoc policy that is driven by daily events.”

Paulina Villegas contributed reporting.