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Mexican state security minister can't trust her own police

Minerva Bautista and her entourage were attacked by gunmen in Michoacan, turf of La Familia drug gang. The chief suspects are well known to her.

June 27, 2010|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Morelia, Mexico — As dozens of gunmen fired more than 2,700 deafening rounds of ammunition, Minerva Bautista crouched on the floor of her heavily armored SUV, screaming into her radio for backup and thinking one thing: "I know help will come."

But when the minister of security for Michoacan state heard the rounds begin to penetrate her car's armor, sending pieces of metal into her back "like fiery sparks," her faith faltered. And when one of her badly injured bodyguards asked her to take care of his family, she lost hope.

"They didn't just want to kill us," she said later. "They wanted to destroy us."

A seemingly interminable 15 minutes after the attack began in a narrow highway pass that night in April, rescuers finally arrived.

It was one of the most brazen assaults on a top state official in President Felipe Calderon's nearly 4-year-old offensive against drug cartels. But there is an even darker side to the story, one that exposes a fundamental flaw in the war: So deep is drug-financed corruption, the lead suspects in the attack on Bautista are the very police she commands.

Four people were killed, but Bautista, 36, suffered only relatively minor wounds. At least as remarkable as her survival is the fact that she has returned to the top security job here in Calderon's home state, where a notorious drug gang called La Familia has penetrated most police and judicial bodies.

She no longer lives at home with her parents but in a safe house, and she moves around with a mini-army of soldiers as guards. Public knowledge of her schedule is kept deliberately vague; her once customary visits to city halls, neighborhoods, schools and prison yards now curtailed. And she has had to recalibrate how, and whom, to trust.

"Of course I am afraid … but I have an even greater conviction now to keep working," Bautista told The Times in her first post-attack interview with a non-Mexican publication.

"If I don't do it, another colleague will have to," she said. "It would be a very negative message to the people of Michoacan if authorities, faced with this situation, say, 'Let's get out of here.'"

Tall and thin, with her blond-highlighted hair pulled in a tight ponytail, Bautista wears lots of blue eye shadow, a sparkling crucifix and a denim shirt with the logo, "Michoacan is working." She steps gingerly but with precision, feeling the metal pieces of shrapnel still lodged in her back and one leg. She smiles and laughs easily, despite the tension engulfing her surroundings.

It's a long way from her days as a schoolteacher and school union activist. A third-generation native of Michoacan, she sank herself into politics, joining the leftist Democratic Revolution Party that has ruled the state for most of the last decade and eventually catching the eye of Gov. Leonel Godoy. Last year he plucked her from a mid-level position in the Public Security Ministry, where she had gravitated after leaving the classroom, and placed her in the top job.

Bautista says she wanted to represent Godoy's idea of a "new face" for public security, one that emphasized citizen participation, education and prevention programs over military might. But one way or another, she managed to cross La Familia.

As part of the investigation of the attempted assassination, more than 100 police officers have been interrogated and their weapons submitted to ballistics tests in a search for suspects, a search that has proved fruitless.

La Familia, known for producing methamphetamine and decapitating enemies, has undermined all attempts to crack down on cartels and restore law and order. Three senior members of the Security Ministry were killed last year, and Bautista's predecessor was arrested on drug-trafficking charges.

These are scenarios that, with one drug gang or another, have been repeated across Mexico. But in contrast with other parts of the country, Michoacan authorities have not conducted a major purge of local police forces, another sign of La Familia's sway.

Authorities suspect corrupt cops tipped gunmen loyal to La Familia to Bautista's movements and route that April night.

Her would-be killers chose well. The spot on the highway where they attacked is flanked by embankments that gave gunmen the advantage of height. They moved a stolen cargo truck across the highway to block her vehicle's escape.

The area is also a spot where cellular telephone and radio signals are spotty. That and the chaos of the moment delayed help. Initially she couldn't even raise anybody on her radio.

She acknowledges there was negligence, or worse. Police patrols that were supposed to be tending the area had not materialized.

"They planned it very well, and we failed in providing the vigilance necessary," she said. "It was an attack from which I wouldn't expect we would emerge alive. Only later did we realize fully the magnitude of the attack."

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