'They were sent to the slaughter': Mexico mourns 13 police killed in cartel ambush

Jo Tuckman in Morelia
Photograph: Enrique Castro/AFP via Getty Images

With an AR-15 assault rifle in his hand and six spare magazines across his chest, the burly policemen looked nothing if not intimidating as he prepared to attend a memorial service for 13 fellow officers who were killed in an ambush in western Mexico on Monday.

Inside, he didn’t feel so tough.

“We feel impotent, we feel alone,” the officer said, asking for his name not be used for fear of reprisals from his superiors. “We don’t have any support.”

At least 30 gunmen opened fire on the convoy of state police officers as they drove along a rural road in the municipality of Aguililla in the state of Michoacán early on Monday morning.

The ambush was the latest in a string of brazen attacks by the Jalisco New Generation cartel (known by its Spanish initials CJNG), and represents a direct challenge to Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s promise to end Mexico’s security crisis while avoiding direct conflict with organized crime groups.

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President López Obrador, widely known as Amlo, insists the military-led offensives against the cartels pursued by his two predecessors have only made things worse, and has instead focused on crime prevention. Meanwhile, a 70,000-strong militarized police force called the National Guard has drawn criticism for being used heavily to keep migrants from reaching the US border.

Asked about the ambush on Tuesday, Amlo said the government would continue with its strategy. “This is a violent area, and we are going to continue attending to the causes of this kind of social decomposition,” he said.

According to Falko Ernst, Mexico analyst of the Crisis Group, the problem is that this focus on the long term is allowing entrenched conflicts, like the one in Michoacán, to spin out of control.

“There is no short-term strategy,” he said. “At the very least, these groups are getting the message that the leash is loose – and it makes sense for them to test how far they can go.”

Monday’s ambush was claimed by the CJNG, which is currently fighting to seize the region known as Tierra Caliente – the Hot Land – from a litany of other armed groups.

These include the remnants of older cartels partially dismantled by government offensives of the past (such as the once-dominant Knights Templar), former armed vigilante groups and the different police forces – all of which are deeply corroded by links to organized crime.

The memorial service in Morelia. Photograph: Enrique Castro/AFP via Getty Images

Two active officers and one former officer at Tuesday’s memorial services, speaking on condition of anonymity, accepted that the state police force is riddled with corruption.

They blamed the commanders who they said gave their subordinates no choice but to follow orders – even if these were orders meant acting in ways that favoured the interests of criminal groups.

They also said that they suspected senior commanders knew of an impending attack when they sent the officers to Aguililla to serve a a warrant related to a dispute in a family court.

One officer said it was almost unheard of for police to go into that area without an army escort because it is known to be so dangerous.

“They were sent to the slaughter,” she said. “There is a lot of anger.”

While the police officers at the memorial service held in the state capital Morelia remained stony-faced, several grieving relatives were not so restrained.

A speech by Governor Silvando Aureoles – who called for all Mexico to stand together to against criminals “who are on the lowest rung of the human ladder” –was greeted with tepid applause.

But as he left a smattering of female voices screamed out “¡Asesino!” and a small group began a chant of “Justicia.” Though their voices faded, their sentiment prompted mumblings of agreement throughout the crowd.

“This ceremony is a mockery – a chance for the bosses to pretend that they care,” said the brother of one officer, whose death leaves his five-months pregnant wife and one-year-old child without support. “We are only here so that he is not forgotten.”