A shootout between suspected drug gang hitmen and Mexican security forces killed at least 12 people, just one day after gunmen opened fire at a ruling party candidate running in the upcoming congressional election.
Hitmen aimed their bullets at federal police and soldiers and threw grenades, after officers tried to arrest them in the town of Apaseo el Alto in the normally tranquil central state of Guanajuato, the local attorney general's office said.
The shootout started after a raid on a suspected drug safe house. The operation followed several days of smaller clashes in the state.
State Attorney General Carlos Zamarripa said a dozen gunmen died in the fight, which lasted about 20 minutes and left a muddy street strewn with bodies and bullet casings.
"We captured six hitmen and those six confessed that they were members of the Zetas and so were the dead," Zamarripa told reporters, referring to the armed wing of Gulf cartel.
Gangs fight for control
Rival gangs have taken their fight over Mexico's $40 billion-a-year drug trade inland from the U.S. border as they battle for cocaine smuggling routes running up from Central America into the world's top drug consumer, the United States.
Officials in Guanajuato say the Gulf cartel is fighting a group of smugglers from the western state of Michoacan called "La Familia" (The Family) for control of the state.
President Felipe Calderon has sent thousands of troops across Mexico to rein in the cartel turf wars, but violence has surged and killed 12,300 people since he took office in December 2006.
The drug war is a major concern for voters — who mainly support Calderon's efforts — and for investors and Washington as the government struggles to cleanse the country's police forces of corrupt officers working for drug gangs.
Federal police rounded up 91 police and a local police chief in the central state of Hidalgo on Thursday on suspicion they were working for the Gulf cartel.
Critics worry Calderon has started a battle he cannot win by taking on the powerful cartels, whose rampant killings scare foreign investors and tourists and worry Washington.
In another sign of their brazen violence, hitmen attacked a candidate running for Congress, killing two of his assistants in an assault in the northern state of Sonora days before the July 5 mid-term election.
Gunmen shot at a vehicle carrying the three men from Mexico's ruling National Action Party, or PAN, in the town of Benito Juarez on Thursday night, the state attorney general's office said.
After a day of campaigning by PAN candidate Ernesto Cornejo, the hitmen followed him to a taco stand and shot at him and his assistants as they boarded two vehicles carrying election posters of Cornejo, according to local media.
Cornejo was unharmed in the attack.
Despite the gruesome cartel slayings, public support for Calderon's drug war is expected to cushion his expected defeat in the July 5 election, as many voters punish the PAN for a painful economic downturn.
Mexico will elect candidates to all 500 seats in the lower house on July 5, along with six state governors and hundreds of mayors. Authorities in northern states are mounting major security operations to prevent any attacks at voting booths.