A powerful Mexican drug cartel has unleashed a killing spree against the authorities in a challenge to the leadership of the President in his home state.
The bodies of a dozen federal anti-drug agents were found on a mountain highway in Michoacán, the home state of Felipe Calderón, on Monday.
The killing of the agents was the worst loss of life in a single attack since President Calderón took office in 2006, taking the war between the narcotics gangs and the Government into uncharted territory.
Their murders were the boldest of at least ten reprisal attacks since Arnoldo Rueda Medina, nicknamed La Minsa, was arrested on Saturday. He is reputedly the second-in-command of La Familia cartel in Michoacán.
The surge in violence marks a potential shift in Mexico’s drug wars, which have claimed 11,000 lives during the presidency of Mr Calderón, who ordered the army to intervene.
Ciro Gomez Leyva, a columnist for the newspaper Milenio, described the killings as a Mexican version of the Tet offensive in Vietnam in 1968.
“In the war against the narcos, Saturday, July 11, seems like a kind of Tet offensive, the synchronised action by South Vietnamese guerrillas and the North Vietnamese Army against US troops at the end of January 1968 that, despite being characterised as a military disaster, created the perception that the otherwise invincible US Army would never win in Vietnam,” he wrote.
The perception that the war against drugs is being lost is pervasive. A poll published in Milenio said that only 28 per cent of Mexicans believed that the Government was winning, and more than half thought that it was losing.
Mr Calderón said: “The criminals will not be able to intimidate the federal Government. In this battle we will not give up, we will not hesitate, because what is at stake is Mexico’s peace and safety.”
Michoacán, on the Pacific coast, has become a battleground because it controls routes into the United States. It is also one of Mexico’s main producers of marijuana, opium poppies and synthetic drugs.
Mr Rueda was arrested in the Michoacán capital, Morelia. He is allegedly the right-hand-man to the reputed boss, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, known as El Mas Loco, or the Craziest One.
Within hours of the arrest, gunmen from La Familia, armed with rifles and grenades, ambushed federal forces in seven cities.
Some of the attacks took place near tourist sites such as the arts-and-crafts centre of Patzcuaro and Zitacuaro, which is famous for its monarch butterflies.
In the most brutal attack, eleven men and one woman agent were abducted while off duty.
Their bodies were found stacked on the highway with death threats that read: “La Familia, join its ranks or leave” and “Let’s see if you try to arrest another one”.
La Familia has penetrated the power structure, allegedly obtaining protection from police and politicians.
Seven mayors, one former mayor and a state prosecutor are being held after a federal police sweep of allegedly corrupt politicians in May.
An arrest warrant has been issued for Julio Godoy, the half brother of a state Governor. Mr Godoy was elected to Congress last week as a member of the Democratic Revolution Party.
Analysts said that the killings were not necessarily a sign of the cartel’s strength, but were an escalation of the battle to contain them.
“This marks an important change in the drug war in that they are attacking federal forces directly,” Jorge Chabat, a drug expert, said.
“It also suggests the capture of this person has affected the operations of the cartel. It was a major blow and this is a reaction out of weakness, not strength.”
In separate Mexican drug violence, six gunmen were killed on Tuesday in the northern city of Monterrey. Gunmen killed the mayor of Namiquipa in Coahuila and four police officers were kidnapped in Piedras Negras.
In Tabasco state on the Gulf coast, prosecutors charged five alleged Gulf cartel hitmen with allegedly killing two policemen and eighteen of their relatives in February and May.
A drugs trade worth billions and severed heads on the dance floor
• Every year Mexican cartels smuggle illegal drugs worth about $40 billion (£24 billion) into the United States, the world’s biggest market for narcotics. Mexico is a major source of heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana — and a key transit country for the vast amounts of cocaine that are transported over the border
• In 2008, 6,000 people died in drug violence in Mexico, according to President Calderón — almost double the 3,042 deaths that were recorded in 2007
• About 95 per cent of the killings were carried out using firearms from the US. Most of the drug violence takes place in a few cities near the US border, with drugs and people being trafficked to the north, and weapons to the south
• In December 2006, Mr Calderón announced the deployment of 36,000 troops to work with the federal police to fight the drug trade in nine states. The police are widely accused of corruption
• 53 per cent of Mexicans think the Government is losing the war with the drug cartels, according to a 2008 poll in a Mexican newspaper
• La Familia cartel achieved notoriety in 2006 when a member walked into a bar and threw five severed heads on to the dance floor