A Mexican marine guards a police station after the entire police force was… (Felix Marquez, Associated…)
Reporting from Mexico City — Gunmen opened fire Thursday on three passenger buses in the violence-racked state of Veracruz, killing at least seven people, Mexican authorities said.
All five attackers were killed in a shootout with federal security forces after the attack, which took place on a rural highway near Panuco in the northern part of the coastal state.
State spokeswoman Gina Dominguez said the gunmen were suspected in a separate attack earlier Thursday in El Higo, another town not far from the border with Tamaulipas state. Four people were killed in that assault.
Dominguez did not specify a possible motive for the predawn attacks, nor did she identify the gunmen. She said the buses belonged to three separate companies that serve the northern end of Veracruz.
She said Mexican troops chased the gunmen down before the gun battle that left the assailants dead.
"We are working to identify them, to identify the group that attacked the buses," Dominguez said in an interview on Milenio Television.
She said troops recovered an armor-reinforced vehicle, five rifles and 54 ammunition clips, as well as eight cellphones. She said authorities had beefed up security on highways in the area.
The violence came a day after state authorities disbanded the 900-member police force in the city of Veracruz, a busy port that has become a battleground between rival drug-trafficking organizations.
Authorities described the move to dissolve the force as part of an effort to clean up corruption, a major problem in local police departments across Mexico. State police and the Mexican navy, which is based in Veracruz, were put in charge of patrolling the city and its suburbs.
The state has been rocked by a wave of killing for several months, apparently stemming largely from disputes over territory between the Zetas drug gang and a trafficking group allied with Mexico's most wanted drug suspect, Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, from the northwestern state of Sinaloa.
The city of Veracruz, known as a Zeta stronghold, has been hit particularly hard. In September, 35 bodies were dumped on a busy thoroughfare in a suburb known as Boca del Rio, a sun-washed spot on the Gulf of Mexico favored by Mexican visitors.
A group calling itself the "Zeta-killers" and thought to be allied with Guzman posted a video online that took credit for the mass slayings, describing them as part of a drive to rid the state of the Zetas, whose brutal methods have struck fear into the hearts of residents.
In Tamaulipas, a border state just north of Veracruz, the Zetas have been locked in a war for two years with the Gulf cartel, which they once served as a kind of private army.