Pubdate: Fri, 21 Nov 2008
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2008 Los Angeles Times
Author: Tracy Wilkinson, Reporting from Culiacan, Mexico

Mexico Under Siege


Five Federal and State Police Agents Are Killed in an Ambush in
Culiacan As Drug Gangs Try to Fight Off a Government Crackdown. The
Day's Toll Is 10.

The fourth corpse pulled from the bullet-shattered pickup truck didn't
have the benefit of a body bag. Only the face was covered (with a
useless bulletproof vest). The victim's red shirt was even redder,
soaked with blood. His bare arm hung limply from a gurney as he was
lifted to a wagon from the morgue, the toes of his boots pointed
skyward, at odd angles.

He was one of five federal and state police agents killed in a brazen
shootout Wednesday night on the city's prominent Emiliano Zapata
Boulevard. The officers were ambushed by gunmen in three vehicles who
opened fire at an intersection outside an enormous casino called Play.

The shooters escaped. Police, emergency workers and soldiers converged
on the scene, as the casino's blue and purple neon lights blinked
garishly over the dead men slumped in the cab and bed of the pocked
pickup. In all, 10 people were killed in Sinaloa state during a
24-hour period ended Wednesday night, a deadly slice of the burgeoning
Mexican drug war. Nationwide, more than 4,000 people have been killed
this year, according to Mexican media reports, many of them law
enforcement agents doing battle with powerful drug gangs.

Sinaloa, a fertile state on the Pacific coast, has long been at the
center of Mexico's drug trade. It has become a hub of violence since
President Felipe Calderon dispatched an army of soldiers and federal
police to take on some of the biggest drug lords.

The alarming level of violence -- shootouts and kidnappings almost
every day -- has sown panic and fear among a normally resilient citizenry.

"To live in Culiacan is a risk," said Javier Valdez, a journalist and
writer who hours before the killings addressed university students
about the dangers of working here. "There is a psychosis -- you
breathe it, live it, smell it, sweat it."

This week, grenades were hurled at the offices of Culiacan's
largest-circulation newspaper, El Debate. Although no one was hurt,
the act was widely seen as a message of intimidation.

The slain police agents (seven have been killed here in seven days)
were part of a unit dedicated to cracking down on the rampant streets
sales of cocaine, marijuana and other narcotics. They were ambushed a
couple of blocks from their headquarters, shortly after they dropped
off a suspect. Two other federal police officers with the agents were
seriously injured.

After the bodies were taken away and investigators from a variety of
agencies (some mistrustful of each other) did their work, a tow truck
operator began the task of hauling away the agents' vehicle, riddled
by scores of high-caliber bullets, its tires flattened.

Suddenly, a white Honda Civic sped up, wheels screeching to a stop
after somehow managing to penetrate police cordons. Three women and
two men jumped out. They were relatives of one of the agents.

"Mi hijo! Mi hijo!" screamed one woman. "My son, my

They cried and flailed their arms; one of the men, a brother perhaps,
beat the hood of his car with his fists. "Oh, no, no, no," he moaned.

"Silence!" an officer in charge commanded. "Ladies, calm

"You don't understand," one of the younger women cried

"Yes, ma'am, I do," he said.

Behind them, the tow truck cranked and wheezed as it heaved the pickup
onto its flatbed.

Inconsolable, the family left for the morgue, one of dozens that have
sprung up here and do brisk business.

The tow truck left as well, taking away its own casualty. At the
ambush site, the air smelled of spilled gasoline. Three investigators
in rubber gloves picked up spent shells, scattered for many feet,
filling several plastic bags.