In the latest of a series of brazen, drug-related attacks, gunmen ambushed a prisoner transfer convoy in western Mexico, killing eight officers in a failed attempt to free a high-level cartel member, police said Sunday.
At least 20 assailants fired in three separate gun barrages Saturday on the dwindling column of vehicles as it raced between an airport and prison in the Pacific coast state of Nayarit, police said.
Police called it a well-planned attack intended to free Jeronimo Gamez, cousin of Arturo Beltran Leyva, the reputed leader of one of Mexico's most powerful cartels. Gamez was arrested in Mexico City in January and was being moved to a prison in Nayarit's capital city, Tepic.
Police officials said the fallen officers "fulfilled their duty with professionalism, commitment and dedication."
Assault on army patrol earlier
The attack came three days after a bold assault on an army patrol in the nearby state of Guerrero, where 15 assailants and one soldier died, and just a day after officials reported 12 people dead across the state of Michoacan, including three who were beheaded.
The assaults by emboldened, heavily armed cartels bracketed the first official visit Thursday by U.S. President Barack Obama, who vowed to step up enforcement of laws banning the transfer of guns across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Soldiers seized two .50-caliber Barrett rifles, 17 other rifles and eight grenades at the Guerrero scene.
Officers still managed to deliver Gamez and eight other prisoners, who were being transported in an armored vehicle, said an employee of the state prosecutor's office, who was not authorized to be quoted by name.
The other escort vehicles apparently were not armored and fared badly in the attacks, which began just outside the airport.
Photos from the scene showed battered police pickup trucks with shot-out windows, crumpled fenders or bullet holes and blood stains from the fallen police.
Four federal police officers, two federal investigative agents and two prison employees died in the attack. There was no immediate information on the number of injured or wounded and no reports of deaths or arrests among the attackers.
Ongoing wave of drug violence
Prosecutors accuse Gamez of acting as Beltran Leyva's representative in negotiating drug deals with Colombian traffickers.
Mexico has suffered a continuing wave of drug-related violence, killing more than 10,650 people since 2006, when Calderon sent 45,000 troops to directly confront the traffickers.
In the western city of Morelia, 400 federal police, using two Blackhawk helicopters and an airplane, swooped in on a baptismal party being held Saturday by alleged members of the Familia Michoacana cartel. Police detained 44 people, including a man allegedly in charge of recruitment for the Michoacan-based gang.
Federal police commissioner Rodrigo Esparza said that suspect Rafael Cedeno claimed to have trained 9,000 recruits for the cartel in 2008, hinting at the gang's size and power.
The White House on Wednesday added the Familia Michoacana to the U.S. government's blacklist of drug syndicates, known commonly as the Drug Kingpin Act.
U.S. officials say the gang moves massive amounts of cocaine from Colombian drug dealers.