MEXICO CITY — Federal and local police swept across Michoacan on Saturday, hunting for the gunmen who assassinated the southern state's head of public safety during a birthday dinner at a crowded restaurant.
Rogelio Zarazua Ortega, civilian overseer of Michoacan's police force, was shot Friday night as he sat at a table with two dozen friends and relatives. Also gunned down was one of Zarazua's police bodyguards.
Federal officials said Saturday that they believed the pair were the latest victims in a war between the nation's two most powerful drug cartels, which are fighting each other and the police over lucrative trade in marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine.
More than 215 killings have been carried out in Michoacan this year by the drug gangs, officials say. Across Mexico, violence linked to cartels has claimed more than 1,000 lives this year, including that of the police chief in Ciudad Juarez, who was slain hours after he was sworn into office in June.
Witnesses said two hit men carried out the slayings Friday night in a residential district of the state capital, Morelia. The men entered the restaurant with AK-47 rifles, known here by the nickname cuerno de chivo, or "the goat's horn," for the distinctive shape of their bullet clips.
Zarazua was shot at least a dozen times in the chest and neck, according to local news reports.
Lazaro Cardenas Batel, the governor of Michoacan, arrived at the scene shortly afterward, promising to bring the killers to justice.
Last week, Mexican President Vicente Fox sent army troops to help patrol Acapulco, the largest city in Guerrero state, after a spate of drug-related violence in which local police stations were attacked at least four times with hand grenades.
On Thursday, a police officer became the eighth officer to be killed by suspected drug cartel gunmen in Acapulco this year.
In Michoacan, the killing of Zarazua came after an especially bloody week of suspected "narcoviolence" that saw at least 15 people slain in cities and towns across the state.
Police officials in Michoacan have said that the Sinaloa cartel and the Gulf cartel are fighting for control of marijuana and opium poppy fields, along with a growing number of laboratories producing methamphetamine. Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman leads the Sinaloa cartel, while the Gulf cartel's ranks include former army soldiers known as Zetas.
The newspaper Cambio de Michoacan reported Saturday that Zarazua had received a series of threats, by phone and in letters, warning him not to "damage the interests" of the drug cartels.
During Zarazua's 11 months in office, Michoacan state police raided seven drug labs in Morelia and arrested three suspected Zeta hit men.
On Friday, a nationwide holiday celebrating Mexican independence, Zarazua was sitting in a private banquet room near the back of Las Trojes restaurant. The gunmen, dressed in black, yelled, "Nobody move!" then opened fire on Zarazua, according to local news reports. He was killed instantly.
None of the other guests at the table, including Zarazua's wife, was injured.
The gunmen then fled outside to a truck, where at least four associates were waiting. The assailants then exchanged fire with Zarazua's police security detail, which was stationed outside the restaurant.
Police officer Cesar Bautista Jimenez was killed in the resulting gun battle, which left two other officers seriously wounded and a police cruiser riddled with more than 50 bullet holes.
Several other local police and security chiefs have been killed in Mexico this year.
On Sept. 11, suspected drug cartel hit men killed the commander of the special investigative police in Ciudad Victoria, in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas. Four days earlier, south of Cancun, hit men assassinated the commander of anti-drug operations for Playa del Carmen, Carlos Hiram Rodriguez.
Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.