Grieving relatives of 13 police officers killed in an apparent cartel ambush gathered outside a funeral home Tuesday, many of them angry at the government and police commanders they believe sent their loved ones to a certain death.
“The good ones are here,” said the brother of slain officer Marco Antonio González, gesturing at the huge funeral hall.
“And those responsible for this, they are also here,” the brother said just as the Michoacan state police chief and his top brass got out of cars.
The man and other relatives refused to give their names for fear of reprisals in this western Mexico state where violence blamed on drug gangs has jumped in recent months.
A memorial service later in the day was an angry, raw-nerved affair. Only eight coffins were present — mourners said the five other families refused to participate because they were so angry their sons and brothers had been sent on the mission that was attacked.
Some shouted at Gov. Silvano Aureoles: “Like sheep to the slaughter!”
More than 30 suspected cartel gunmen waylaid the police officers in the town of El Aguaje on Monday as they were traveling in a convoy to serve a warrant. Nine officers were also wounded in the worst attack on Mexican law enforcement in years.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called the attack “regrettable,” but said he remains committed to his security approach emphasizing tackling underlying social problems even though national homicide figures have been setting all-time highs.
“We are going to continue with our strategy,” López Obrador said Tuesday. “For us it is very important for there to be well-being, that peace with justice can be achieved … and also avoiding that authorities mix with crime.”
Meanwhile, authorities in neighboring Guerrero state said late Tuesday that armed men confronted soldiers investigating an anonymous tip that gunmen were in Tepochica municipality. The ensuing gunbattle killed one soldier and 14 civilians, state security spokesman Roberto Alvarez said.
The incident happened the same day as the ambush in Michoacan, and Guerrero officials said they were still investigating to determine who was behind the attack. Guerrero is known for violence linked to organized crime and the army has been targeted on other occasions.
In Michoacan, signs left at the scene of the attack in the town of El Aguaje in Aguililla municipality were apparently signed by the Jalisco New Generation cartel, one of Mexico’s most powerful gangs.
The governor made solemn vows to assure families the killers would be brought to justice, but after years of bloodshed in Michoacan, he was met by shouts of “Killer!” and “Justice!”
Aureoles called for the army to send more soldiers to Michoacan and included a veiled criticism of López Obrador.
“The criminals do not understand — response and action from Mexican government is needed,” he said.
While López Obrador vowed to continue his strategy of avoiding violence, many doubt it will work.
Raymundo Zavala, an office worker and resident of the Michoacan state capital of Morelia, longs for the days of Felipe Calderón, who waged an all-out offensive against drug cartels during his 2006-2012 presidency.
“There has to be a strategy like Calderón’s in his time,” Zavala said. “Although things were more armored, it was safer. … There was more order.”
At the funeral home in Morelia, relatives of the dead described a situation in which relatively young, new, lightly armed police were sent in to confront hardened foes with heavier armament, without any support.
González graduated from the police academy just nine months earlier. He left behind a 1-year-old son and a wife who is five months pregnant.
“They asked for help, reinforcements, and it never arrived,” his brother said, alluding to recordings of desperate radio calls sent out as the convoy came under intense fire.
The attackers let loose with .50 caliber sniper rifles and AR-15 and AK-47 assault rifles, and at least some were in armored vehicles, state prosecutors said. Some of the officers’ bodies were still inside patrol trucks when they were set on fire.
Gonzalez’s brother suggested there must have been an informant and the officers were set up.
“They say this is not going to go unpunished, when we know that in this state everything goes unpunished,” the officer’s uncle said.
El Aguaje is the reputed birthplace of Nemesio “Mencho” Oseguera, leader of the hyper-violent Jalisco New Generation.
After the attack, the area in western Mexico’s so-called “hot lands” was reinforced by federal and state security forces, which set up checkpoints to hunt for the assailants.
Michoacan, an important avocado-growing state, is home to the port of Lazaro Cárdenas, a key entry point for precursor chemicals used to make synthetic drugs. It has recently seen a spike in violence that has brought back memories of the bloodiest days of Mexico’s war on drug cartels between 2006 and 2012.
In August, police found 19 bodies in the town of Uruapan, including nine hung from a bridge. Later, an area roughly 45 miles (70 kilometers) north of Aguililla was the scene of fierce clashes between members of Jalisco New Generation and regional self-defense groups.
In 2013, civilian groups faced with what they said was state inaction armed themselves in Michoacan to fight the Knights Templar cartel, one of whose bases was Aguililla. They said they took up arms to defend themselves from kidnappings, extortion and killings by cartels.
But some of the self-defense or vigilante groups later became infiltrated by cartels and gangs, and the government launched a process to disarm, legalize and incorporate the vigilantes into official security forces.
Hipólito Mora, the founder of the self-defense movement in 2013, said flatly that the president’s strategy is doomed to fail.
“Until President Andrés Manuel López Obrador gets it out of his mind that organized crime can be addressed with hugs and kisses … nothing is going to change,” Mora said. On the contrary, he added, “so far there have been more killings than ever. As of today it is clear that the government’s strategy has not worked.”
At the memorial service, a weeping Yasmin Guzmán could only throw herself over the coffin of her husband, Juvenal López Castolo, who left her alone with daughters aged 4 and 9.
“We want justice,” she wailed.