It was the boldest, most widespread coordinated offensive ever mounted by drug traffickers against the Mexican government.
Within minutes of the weekend arrest of the La Familia drug cartel's operations chief, the gang launched deadly attacks in President Felipe Calderon's home state. In the worst, 12 federal agents were killed execution-style, their tortured bodies piled along a roadside as a warning for all to see.
The attacks, following the weekend capture of Arnoldo Rueda, spread quickly to at least 10 cities, including towns in two neighboring states. Officers' hotels were shot up. Grenades were tossed at police posts.
At least 18 federal agents and two soldiers were killed in the attacks and ambushes. Nearly two dozen officers were wounded.
Near the bloodied bodies of the 12 agents dumped in a heap Monday off a mountain highway near La Huacana was a message: "Let's see if you try to arrest another one."
Calderon: Backlash proves cartel hurt
It was a blatant challenge to Calderon, who has deployed federal police and troops in an attempt to halt the country's escalating drug trade.
Calderon insists that the backlash to Rueda's arrest proves the cartel has been hurt.
"The arrests of dangerous leaders by the federal government in recent months is seriously affecting their operations and generating chaos in their ranks," Calderon said. "Thus the violent and desperate reaction that we've seen these days."
Government critics said the offensive revealed that federal forces are unprepared for the battle against heavily armed crime syndicates with extensive intelligence networks embedded within police forces.
They also said it undermines Calderon's repeated claims that violence shows the thugs are on the run.
A cartoon in the left-leaning La Jornada newspaper Wednesday depicted a bound and blindfolded policeman with a gun to his head. "Don't worry," says a tied-up colleague kneeling beside him. "It's just another desperate action by organized crime because they're cornered."
Mexico's national security spokesman, Monte Alejandro Rubido, said a La Familia suspect detained Monday told authorities gang leaders had sent an order to attack federal forces within minutes of Rueda's arrest in the Michoacan state capital of Morelia.
Dozens of gunmen carrying high-powered weapons and grenades attacked the station where Rueda was held. They failed to free him, but three federal agents were wounded by grenade fragments.
Convoys of other hit men fanned out across Michoacan and the neighboring states of Guerrero and Guanajuato.
Assailants gunned down two soldiers riding on a bicycle in their off hours outside their base in the town of Zamora. In Apatzingan, federal agents came under fire while sleeping at a hotel in a farming town ringed by mango orchards. Others were ambushed in patrol cars on lonesome highways. Three federal agents were fatally shot as they raced to a reported car accident, which turned out to be an ambush.
Expert: Government should rethink plan
"This clearly shows federal forces are vulnerable," said Jorge Chabat, a Mexican drug expert. "The government needs to rethink its police protection scheme. If they don't, no one is going to want to be a police officer or soldier. There is not enough protection for them."
The government has not said whether federal agents are quitting out of fear, although several towns have seen local police leave in droves after feeling threatened.
Calderon has sent an estimated 45,000 soldiers and tens of thousands of federal agents to drug hot spots — from Mexico's steamy Gulf coast to its colonial mountain villages to its desert outposts.
Many wear ski masks as they ride through the towns in army vehicles and in the back of federal police pickups with their assault rifles drawn.
But at the end of the day, many federal agents retire to hotels in towns so small that everyone knows everyone else's business. While soldiers stay on military bases, gunmen have picked them off when they go on leave.
Spy network includes police, politicians
Experts say cartels have an extensive spy network that includes police, politicians, taxi drivers, waitresses, hotel employees and others paid to track the movements of soldiers and police.
Federal forces in Michoacan arrested 10 mayors and 20 state and municipal officials in May for allegedly protecting La Familia. Many were from the towns targeted in this weekend's attacks.
The success of such networks was evident in the offensive: Near the Pacific coast, gunmen fired on a private tour bus carrying federal officers who were trying to conceal their identities. The driver and one officer were wounded.
The 12 federal agents whose bloodied bodies were found Monday piled just off a mountain highway near the town of La Huacana were believed to have been kidnapped Sunday on their day off. A message left nearby read: "Let's see if you try to arrest another one."
The agents were in a remote region of Michoacan to gather intelligence.
Mexico's federal attorney general's office announced Wednesday the former mayor of La Huacana, who finished his term in 2007, allegedly gave information to La Familia about operations of federal forces in the area.
"The government was overly confidant drug traffickers would not react so violently," said Jose Luis Pineyro, a drug expert at Mexico's National Autonomous University. "It's another sign that Calderon's strategy is flawed because it is reactive and does not try to prevent the possible hits by drug traffickers."
Cartel bought U.S. guns
Congressman Juan Francisco Rivera, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, said the United States shares the blame by feeding cartels high powered weapons bought easily north of the border.
"As long as they don't suspend the indiscriminate sale of arms in 10,000 stores along the U.S. border, Mexican police and soldiers are going to keep dying," said Rivera, the head of Congress' security commission.
Pineyro says the government needs to rotate its forces more often, alert agents to take precautions after a major arrest and limit their movements during their off hours.
Gen. Rodolfo Cruz, who oversees federal forces, said relatively few police and soldiers were killed, given the number of attacks — showing they are adequately prepared.
The cartel, however, may have succeeded in convincing the public otherwise.
Ciro Gomez Leyva, a columnist for Milenio newspaper, called the ambushes a "Tet offensive," referring to the offensive by the North Vietnamese army that failed but created a perception among the American public that the war could not be won.
Voters showed they are growing tired of Calderon's battle by delivering a stinging loss to his National Action Party in midterm elections July 5, though it campaigned as the only party willing to take on cartels. The drug war has left more than 11,000 people dead since Calderon took office in 2006.
"These attacks are demoralizing police and terrorizing the population into not helping officials," Pineyro said. "The government's war is flawed."