MEXICO CITY — Authorities were interrogating a suspected ringleader of the drug cartel La Familia on Sunday after the crime syndicate launched a series of coordinated commando attacks against federal police and Mexican soldiers over the weekend that left five dead and a dozen wounded.
The ambushes Saturday in eight cities across the western state of Michoacan were carried out with disciplined force by small units of La Familia cartel gunmen with military-grade assault rifles and grenades. Federal officials said the attacks were in retaliation for the capture of one of the group's leaders.
The offensive began in the capital, Morelia, and lasted 10 hours. The attacks, in which convoys of gunmen sprung surprise attacks on government positions, occurred near sites popular with tourists, including the arts-and-crafts town of Patzcuaro and nearby Zitacuaro, famous for its migrating monarch butterflies. Mexican media reported two more attacks Sunday.
The assault marks an apparent escalation in Mexico's drug war, which has left more than 11,000 dead since President Felipe Calderon launched the offensive in December 2006.
A senior U.S. drug enforcement official recently called La Familia, one of the nation's newest and most violent mini-cartels, "the new face of drug trafficking in Mexico." The official added that La Familia has a presence in at least 30 U.S. cities.
Ramon Pequeno Garcia, chief of anti-drug operations at Mexico's Public Security Ministry, said in an interview last month that La Familia is fighting for control of cocaine smuggling routes heading north from the port of Lazaro Cardenas toward the United States. The attacks began at dawn Saturday in Morelia shortly after the arrest of Arnold Rueda Medina, reported to be the right-hand man of La Familia founder Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, known as "El Mas Loco," or the Craziest One. He recruits troops to his cartel from the ranks of rural militias and drug treatment centers. El Mas Loco is known as the author of a slim book of folk wisdom and is infamous for masterminding torture-slayings.
Gunmen apparently went on the rampage after failing to free Rueda. They also attacked a hotel in Apatzingan where federal police were staying.
On Sunday afternoon, federal police said two suspects in the attacks had been arrested.