ECUANDUREO, Mexico: The latest in a series of clashes between Mexican authorities and a powerful, fast-growing drug cartel turned into the deadliest confrontation in recent memory, with 42 suspected gang gunmen and one federal police officer killed during a three-hour firefight at a remote western ranch.
The battle on Friday followed two other recent unprecedented attacks by the cartel, one that killed 15 state police officers and another that shot down an army helicopter with a rocket launcher for the first time in Mexico’s history. The death toll from all three is at least 76 people at a time when the Mexican government claims crime is falling dramatically and the interior minister recently insisted the country “is not in flames.”
Investigators and human rights officials continued to work Saturday on the scene of a lop-sided confrontation, similar to a case last June 30 in Mexico state, where the army said 22 alleged criminals died in a shootout with troops, while only one soldier was injured. An investigation by The Associated Press revealed that many of suspects had been killed after they surrendered.
Photographs from the scene of Friday’s bloodshed showed bodies, some with semi-automatic rifles and others without weapons, lying in fields, next to farm equipment and on a blood-stained patio strewn with clothes, mattresses and sleeping bags. Video obtained by Associated Press showed federal police officers coming under fire and bodies strewn throughout the ranch.
Black smoke could be seen for miles, billowing upward from vehicles set on fire during the fighting in the municipality of Tanhuato on the border between Jalisco and Michoacan states.
The suspects were members of “a criminal organization whose main operating zone is Jalisco state,” national security commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido said. He did not specifically the Jalisco New Generation cartel, but the drug gang dominates Jalisco. A federal official on Saturday said the area around the ranch has been a Jalisco New Generation stronghold in the last couple of years as the cartel has expanded outside of Jalisco and grown rapidly into one of Mexico’s most powerful organized crime groups. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press.
The scene is near the town of La Barca, where authorities in 2013 found more than five dozen bodies in mass graves linked to the Jalisco cartel. In 2014, gunmen killed the mayor of Tanhuato.
Rubido said Friday’s gun battle started when soldiers, federal police and investigators responded to a report that armed men had appeared suddenly on a ranch. Federal forces on the way to the ranch met a truck carrying armed men who opened fire, and when the government forces chased the gunmen onto the ranch, they came under heavy fire from others, the security chief said.
The bodies of men who authorities say were suspected cartel gunman lie next to farm equipment. (AP photo)
“The rest of the presumed criminals on the property started to attack with intensity,” Rubido said.
A federal police officer died trying to help a colleague wounded in the shootout.
The federal force called for air and ground support, which included a federal police helicopter. The size of the ranch, 112 hectares (277 acres), complicated the battle, which lasted intermittently for three hours in three different locations, Rubido said.
A police official in the nearby town of Ecuandureo said he didn’t know who owned the ranch, known as Rancho del Sol, which aerial photos show includes a large house and a tennis court. The official did not want to give his name for security reasons. Two other area residents, who also didn’t want to give their names out of concern for their safety, said the ranch had operated for at least 15 years growing alfalfa and other grasses for cattle feed.
Rubido said the investigation continued but that authorities so far had detained three people and confiscated 36 semi-automatic weapons, two smaller arms, a grenade launcher that had been fired and a .50-caliber rifle. He said eight vehicles also were confiscated, six of them set ablaze by a fire inside a storehouse that created the black plume of smoke.
Jalisco New Generation has mounted several large-scale attacks on federal and state forces in recent weeks.
In April, gunmen believed linked to the cartel ambushed a police convoy in Jalisco, killing 15 state officers and wounding five. Earlier this month, New Generation gunmen shot down a military helicopter with a rocket launcher in Jalisco in a confrontation that killed 18.