Federal security personnel stand guard on a road where alleged drug traffickers… (European Pressphoto Agency )
MEXICO CITY — A wave of ambushes on federal police in the troubled Mexican state of Michoacan that has left two officers and 20 suspects dead were acts of desperation in response to the federal crackdown on criminal cartels, a government spokesman said Wednesday.
Security spokesman Eduardo Sanchez's remarks, made in a radio interview, came a day after armed groups carried out six attacks on federal police in various locations across the southwestern state.
On Wednesday, Mexican news reports said a seventh attack on police occurred Tuesday in an indigenous community near the port of Lazaro Cardenas, a key smuggling hub. Michoacan's interim governor, Jesus Reyna, said the unconfirmed toll was two officers killed and five wounded.
The brazen ambushes, along with other recent violence, underscore the thorny challenge that President Enrique Peña Nieto faces in Michoacan, where weak state and local governments have struggled to combat the rise of the Knights Templar, a cartel of ruthless extortionists and drug world operators whose stated ideology of community empowerment has won it the support of some residents.
The instability in Michoacan has increased in recent months as armed "self-defense" citizen groups have risen to fight the cartel. The chaos dealt a blow to Michoacan's important agricultural sector; among other things, the cartel, in some cases, would not allow fruit to be harvested if growers had not forked over protection payments.
In May, after numerous deadly clashes, Peña Nieto sent thousands of federal troops to Michoacan in an effort to quell the violence. It was his administration's first major military operation against the cartels since taking office in December.
Sanchez, the spokesman, did not say whether the recent attacks were carried out by the Knights Templar. But he portrayed the ambushes as part of a narrative of government success, saying the attacks "reflect that these people are at an important level of desperation after the flow of goods was restored, [and] the exit and entry of agricultural products to the state, and, of course, later seriously hit the pocket and the economic interests" of the criminals.
The crisis in Michoacan has complicated Peña Nieto's effort to turn international focus from the drug war and toward his country's economic promise. Moreover, Mexican security expert Jorge Chabat believes that it undermines the president's assertions that he has formulated a better security strategy than that of his predecessor, Felipe Calderon, who was first to send the military into states like Michoacan to confront the cartels head-on.
"What's happening in Michoacan clearly contradicts this talk of success, that they know how to do it, that they have the answer," Chabat said Wednesday. "This is a problem that goes beyond who is president.... The problem isn't the strategy, the problem is the state, that the Mexican state doesn't work."
On Thursday, three federal officers were killed in an attack on a highway near the border with Guerrero state. On Monday, five residents were killed when gunmen opened fire on a group of protesters in Los Reyes.
Mexican Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong told reporters that the government would seek out those responsible for the "cowardly" attack against the Los Reyes protesters and continue the work of "reestablishing order, peace and security."
Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.