MEXICO CITY — Gunmen ambushed a police convoy in the western state of Jalisco, killing 15 state police officers and wounding five as bullets riddled their vehicles in the deadliest single attack on Mexican police in recent memory.
The attack happened late Monday as the convoy traveled on a rural road between the Pacific coast resort of Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara, the state capital, the Jalisco state prosecutors' office said. The death toll exceeded that of what had been the largest recent since attack on law enforcement, an assault that killed 12 federal police officers in neighboring Michoacan state in 2010.
Jalisco is home to a drug cartel known as Jalisco New Generation, which experts say is now among Mexico's most powerful. Prosecutors would not confirm the gang was involved in Monday night's attack, but it would be unlikely for a rival gang to launch such a large attack on Jalisco's home turf.
While state Security Commissioner Alejandro Solorio did not say how the attack was carried out, he said the convoy was ambushed in a "cowardly attack."
Local media reported that a vehicle was hijacked, parked across the two-lane road and set on fire to force the convoy to stop.
"The serious thing about this attack was that it was very well planned and orchestrated, with a military-style strategy," said Raul Benitez, a security expert at Mexico's National Autonomous University. "This was planned. A lot of gunmen were involved. They blocked the highway to surround them (police) and attack with military superiority."
Ambushes of state-level security officials and Mexican army patrols have been relatively rare, and the Jalisco attacks suggest the conflict there is reaching a new level.
The ambush in the township of Soyatan was the latest in a series of attacks in Jalisco over the past two weeks. Gunmen ambushed a federal police convoy March 19, killing five officers. On March 30, gunmen staged an unsuccessful attempt to kill Solorio, the state security commissioner. On Monday, gunmen killed the police chief of the town of Zacoalco de Torres.
Solorio said the most recent attacks are in retaliation for a March 23 shootout in which police killed gang boss Heriberto Acevedo Cardenas, who was nicknamed "El Gringo."
State prosecutor Luis Carlos Najera had previously identified Acevedo Cardenas as the mastermind behind a May 2014 ambush of Mexican troops in another part of Jalisco that killed four soldiers and injured two. Authorities said at the time that attack was carried out by Jalisco New Generation in reprisal for the army's seizure of stolen gasoline.
The cartel has been violent since it was founded in 2010 following the death of Jalisco-based Sinaloa cartel leader Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel.
But it was the first time a cartel appeared to be mounting a direct, head-on challenge to authorities, Benitez said. Gunmen from other cartels have been known to open fire on police and soldiers, but it is usually because they are being pursued and want to escape capture.
Jalisco New General has been fighting the Knights Templar for territory in neighboring Michoacan state, which the Knights Templar controlled, building an economic empire based on extortion, drug trafficking and illegal mining until police and vigilantes largely dismantled the gang in 2013 and 2014.
"It appears that the Jalisco cartel is getting stronger and wants to take over the role that the Knights Templar (cartel) had," Benitez said.
In November 2013, Jalisco state authorities linked Jalisco New Generation to dozens of bodies discovered in mass graves in the community of La Barca near Lake Chapala, which is popular with Canadian and U.S. expatriates and tourists.
Officials believe the cartel was behind the dumping of 35 bodies on a busy street in the Gulf coast city of Veracruz in 2011, during a turf battle with the Zetas drug gang.