Army and Red Cross personnel stand next to the body of a victim, after a vehicle… (AFP/Getty Images )
MEXICO CITY — Three men arrested in the slaying of a Mexican navy vice admiral have confessed that they were present at the time of the crime, and that they are members of a drug cartel that has been terrorizing the area, the nation’s attorney general said Monday.
Sunday’s midday shooting death of Vice Adm. Carlos Miguel Salazar Ramonet and one of his assistants has sent shock waves through Mexico. The death of such a high-level military officer is a rarity in Mexico's drug war, and the navy is considered the nation’s most elite and trustworthy fighting force.
The attack was one of numerous violent assaults on federal authorities in the state of Michoacan in recent weeks. Seven federal police officers have been killed, and many more wounded. More than 20 alleged criminals have also died in the shootouts.
Many here assume that the attacks were coordinated and carried out by the Caballeros Templarios, or Knights Templar, a cartel that runs an extensive and violent extortion racket in Michoacan. The Knights may be lashing out in response to the increased number of federal forces that began arriving in May to try to regain territory that the cartel essentially controls.
It appears that Salazar was not in Michoacan on assignment. At a news conference, Mexican Atty. Gen. Jesus Murillo Karam said that Salazar had been visiting family members in an undisclosed part of Mexico and was being driven back to Puerto Vallarta, in the neighboring state of Jalisco, where he had been based. He was traveling in a white Chevrolet Suburban with his wife, his assistant and a driver.
When Salazar discovered that the freeway he was traveling on was blocked, he decided to take a secondary road, where another truck blocked his path, Murillo Karam said. The people in the truck began asking the Suburban’s occupants for identification, when a second truck pulled up. The people inside the second truck opened fire on the Suburban.
The vice admiral covered his wife, getting her to the floor of the vehicle. But he was killed, along with the assistant, while trying to fight back, Murillo Karam said.
The wife and the driver were injured, but were “out of danger” as of Monday afternoon, according to Eduardo Sanchez, a government spokesman.
The three men arrested for taking part in the attack confessed their involvement, Murillo Karam said, “or at least [to being] the occupants of one of the trucks.” The men, according to the prosecutor, also acknowledged working as robbers, kidnappers and extortionists for the Knights Templar, earning monthly salaries of 7,500 pesos, or about $590.
That detail that goes a long way toward explaining the allure of the cartels in a country where minimum wage workers earn roughly 1,430 pesos per month, or $112.
Murillo Karam said it was “important to note that the admiral wasn’t wearing a uniform, that he was going like any other citizen, much like many citizens who have visited their family on the weekend and were coming back to go to work.” But the attackers might have deduced that Salazar was a top government official, particularly given his use of the Suburban, a favorite car among Mexico’s elite.
Whether Salazar was singled out or picked at random, the episode highlights the challenge President Enrique Peña Nieto faces as he tries to bring peace to Michoacan, a state he has acknowledged is partly controlled by cartels.
On Monday, Peña Nieto said the attack and incidents like it reaffirm the need to impose the rule of law throughout the country.
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Cecilia Sanchez of the Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.