Police officials gather Wednesday on a road near Arizpe, Mexico, in the northern state of Sonora. After a gang attack that killed five policemen, officers killed 15 gunmen in a fierce battle just south of the Arizona border after tracking them into the nearby hills with a helicopter.
updated 5/17/2007 5:36:32 PM ET 2007-05-17T21:36:32

Police chased the remnants of a criminal assault force through mountains near the Arizona border on Thursday after kidnappings and gun battles in which at least 22 people died.

Federal police helicopters and ground forces searched the Sierra Madre for fleeing gunmen on Thursday while state police moved in to replace terrified local officers who abandoned the town of Cananea, 20 miles south of the U.S. border.

Officials said Thursday that a powerful drug cartel may have sent the assailants armed with assault rifles who arrived in 10 to 15 vehicles on Wednesday, pulled four lightly armed city police officers out of pickup trucks and executed them in a roadside park.

Wednesday’s invasion of Cananea — a town that helped spark the 1910 Mexican Revolution when U.S. forces crossed the border to put down a miners’ strike — showed the brashness and power of Mexico’s ruthless organized crime gangs.

President Felipe Calderon has sent thousands of army troops to fight the cartels, but critics say troops trained for battle should not be acting as police officers.

The official National Human Rights Commission said Tuesday that there was credible evidence that some of the newly deployed troops committed rapes, illegal search and other rights abuses.

“Soldiers are not trained to carry out police work,” said Jose Luis Soberanes, president of the rights commission. “If you make them do it, they go overboard and we see these type of cases.”

Analyst: Pulling army out not an option
But political analyst Oscar Aguilar said withdrawing the army from the countryside is not an option.

“It’s one thing to say they’ve committed abuses, and entirely another to say ’send them back to their barracks,”’ Aguilar said. “They are our last line of defense, our last bastion, and we know that.”

He said local police forces have to be strengthened so that the army — which participated in Wednesday’s battle in Cananea — could be called out only as a last resort.

The first outside authorities to arrive in Cananea on Wednesday found an eerie no man’s land where local law enforcement melted away.

“When the state police arrived, there was not a single municipal police officer,” Sonora Gov. Eduardo Bours said, noting he previously asked for a federal investigation of the Cananea police force. “We had to take over the command. There wasn’t anyone there. They had all left.”

Five kidnapped police were found dead and two residents were killed. Security forces rescued four civilians, including two children, as the battle broke out.

The gunmen tried to hole up in mountainous terrain around the town of Arizpe, about 50 miles to the south.

But police and troops followed the assailants, engaged in a shootout and killed 15, Bours said. Police seized 15 assault rifles and eight pistols following the hours-long confrontation, the Sonora state government said in a news release.

Mexico has seen a wave of attacks on police, military and intelligence officials as the government battles drug trafficking gangs.

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