Cartel suspects, military battle in northern Mexico as drug gangs block roads for 2nd day

By Mark Walsh, AP
Friday, March 19, 2010

Army, drug gangs battle in Mexico amid blockades

MONTERREY, Mexico — A shootout in the northern city of Monterrey killed two suspected drug cartel gunmen and wounded a soldier Friday. Suspected gang members also blocked roads in the city for the second day, in a bold attempt to impede security patrols.

Gunmen opened fire on an army patrol outside the gates of a prestigious private university in Monterrey, Mexico’s third-largest city and a major industrial hub, the army said in a statement.

Soldiers seized guns, ammunition and hand grenades at the scene.

The wounded soldier is in stable condition.

Gang members blocked more than 30 roads in the Monterrey metropolitan area over 24 hours, including several leading out of the city, said Nuevo Leon Public Safety Secretary Luis Carlos Trevino. He said the blockades were intended to keep the military from carrying out operations.

Most suspects fled after parking the trucks and other vehicles across the roads, but at least two were arrested, he said. Authorities towed the cars away, the official said.

The street blockades, a novel tactic, drive home how imbued Mexico’s drug war has become in the daily life of some cities — and how audacious cartels have become in their battle against the military and federal police.

Two of the vehicles blocking the roads Thursday were set on fire a few hundred yards (meters) from toll booths.

The federal government called the blockades a reaction to the recent capture of several alleged gang leaders in the Monterrey area.

Those include Alberto “Bad Boy” Mendoza, suspected of being a chief cartel operator linked to the Beltran Leyva gang and others in Monterrey. The navy announced his capture Friday.

“Today’s events in Nuevo Leon are, without a doubt, a desperate reaction by criminal gangs to the federal government’s … advances on security matters,” the Interior Department said in a statement.

Friday’s violence and blockades came a day after gunmen in a convoy of six vehicles opened fire on a navy helicopter on a reconnaissance patrol in Fresnillo, outside of Monterrey. Marines aboard the chopper returned fire, killing one of the gunmen.

President Felipe Calderon has deployed tens of thousands of soldiers and federal police across Mexico over three years in a U.S.-backed campaign to crush brutal cartels battling each other for trafficking and drug-dealing turf.

Gang violence has since surged, claiming nearly 18,000 lives.

At least 40 soldiers have been arrested on drug trafficking charges and another 38 have been accused of abuse against civilians, including torture and killing, said Brig. Gen. Jose Luis Chavez, Mexico’s top military prosecutor.

He said ongoing investigations may lead to the arrest of 50 more soldiers on abuse charges.

To date, however, no soldier has been convicted of abuse, prompting criticism from local and international human rights groups, who also say Mexico should be trying soldiers accused of human rights violations in civilian rather than military courts.

Chavez insisted the military does not systematically engage in abuse or corruption.

“Mistakes are inevitable when working in such a risky situation, in which your life is in danger every day,” Chavez said. “But mistakes must be punished.”

In the northern border city of Ciudad Juarez, meanwhile, police found the skeletal remains of three people in a clandestine grave. Federal police said they were led to the grave by an anonymous tip and would keep digging in the area to seek more bodies.

The identities of the people or how they died were not known. Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, is Mexico’s most violent city.

In the western state of Michoacan, a judge ordered the release of yet another of 12 town mayors arrested last year for suspected cartel ties.

Zitacuaro Mayor Antonio Ixtlahuac was the eighth to be freed for lack of evidence, a setback for Calderon’s efforts to show politicians are not immune to prosecution.

The mayors have all maintained their innocence.

After nearly 10 months behind bars, Ixtlahuac walked out of a prison outside the state capital of Morelia hours after the judge gave the order. He smiled and told reporters he felt vindicated before driving off in a black Mercedes Benz with several relatives.

Associated Press writers E. Eduardo Castillo and Alexandra Olson in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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