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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

For the first 10 minutes, she was confident help would come. But as time under the relentless barrage of grenades and .50-caliber rounds dragged on, she prepared to die.

The state prosecutor's office later said more than 2,700 spent shells were collected from the scene and that about 350 ammo rounds hit Bautista's car. Three grenades also hit it but somehow failed to detonate.

The gunmen fled when they heard the shouts of arriving state police. The bloody aftermath of dust, smoke, agonized screams and destroyed vehicles included four dead: two civilian motorists, who happened to be on the road, and two of Bautista's entourage.

"This kind of thing makes you reflect, and one thought I had was … to quit. But it would have been a defeat," she said. "I used to be very trusting of everybody, and now I am extremely suspicious. I'm more observant of people, what they do, what they say, details I might not have noticed before."

Bautista is not married and has no children, which is why, until the attack, she continued to live with her parents, an arrangement typical in Mexico. Were she a mother, she said, her willingness to put her life on the line might be different. She hopes to marry soon — her boyfriend works in security in her department.

The assassination attempt essentially wiped out an entire shift of her regular protection. Guards previously seconded from the state police force have now been augmented by the better-trained, better-armed military.

The time and venue of the interview with The Times was changed twice and finally took place in a hotel. There, seating was chosen based on the ability to guard two access points. A contingent of soldiers surrounded the hotel. Other well-armed guards in body armor and attached to radios flanked the table where Bautista sat with a reporter and two aides.

It remains a matter of speculation as to exactly why she was targeted — whom she offended or betrayed and how, and who ordered her death. Bautista says she had not received threats, and consequently hadn't taken extraordinary security measures. She suggested that her work, including a number of changes in the leadership of public security departments, had "created discomfort" and may have led to the attempted assassination.

Other Michoacan sources said, however, that several e-mail messages were sent to Bautista this year purporting to be from La Familia and ordering her to step down. In Michoacan, that is the kind of warning that you ignore at your peril.

In the interview, Bautista downplayed the role of her police in the attack, saying that was one of several lines of investigation. But she also acknowledged that the culprits probably would never be arrested and prosecuted, and that would be a shame, she said.

"I hope there are eventually arrests because these are people prepared to do absolutely anything, acting completely in cold blood," she said. "As cases go unresolved, there is more impunity, and criminals, common ones and the ones in organized crime, know they can get away with it. Nothing happens to them."

Bautista supports a federal government plan to consolidate police forces and create a single police agency for each state, loyal to a single command. This would eliminate scores of easily corruptible municipal police forces and, in theory, enhance security.

But a lot of Bautista's plans for reforming state security are on hold now, and she's turning greater attention to technology, such as the use of 500 new surveillance cameras here in Morelia, a colonial city known for its picturesque architecture before it became the center of La Familia terror.

"I am very worried about the situation, and it makes me rethink what we are doing," Bautista said. "We saw how vulnerable we are."

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