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20 Dead In Sonora Shootouts

Lourdes Medrano

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in National Monuments, because the smugglers control them at night.

Life in the cities and shopping malls continue as usual, only to be punctuated with stories like this.

It is not the illegal workers; it is the drug smugglers that are the problem here.

More and more reports are being printed about Federal officers on both sides of the border working for the smugglers.

The smugglers are becoming better organized and taking on the attributes of multinational corporations.

Henry Curtis

Tucson, Arizona


20 Dead in Sonora Shootouts

By Lourdes Medrano

Arizona Daily Star

May 17th 2007

► Up to 50 heavily armed men descend on Cananea

► Gunmen abduct 7 cops; 4 of them later killed

► At least 20 die as police, soldiers confront gunmen

► Grenade tossed at office of Hermosillo newspaper

The northern Mexico state of Sonora is on alert, one day after a convoy of armed gunmen burst into Cananea early Wednesday, killing four police officers, abducting three others - and setting the stage for more carnage later in the day.

State and federal police immediately moved in to take control of the town and surrounding areas.

By 2 p.m., a confrontation between the suspected gunmen and Mexican military and Sonora State Police units in the mountains near Arizpe, Sonora, left at least 20 people dead, Sonora Attorney General Abel Murrieta Gutiérrez said at a news conference Wednesday night, according to the Hermosillo, Sonora, newspaper El Imparcial.

The newspaper reported gunfire was heard late into the evening in the area near Arizpe where the confrontation occurred, about 60 miles south of Cananea. Sonora borders Arizona.

The dead included five police officers and 15 suspected gunmen, Murrieta Gutiérrez said, but it was not clear if the dead officers included, or were in addition to the four Cananea officers killed earlier in the day.

Police were able to rescue four people, including two businessmen kidnapped in Cananea and two juveniles who had been kidnapped earlier by the gunmen.

Meanwhile, in Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora, unidentified assailants on Wednesday tossed a hand grenade from a passing car at the offices of the newspaper Cambio. The device caused only minor damage and no injuries. A similar attack on the newspaper occurred in April.

Murrieta Gutiérrez said police operations are continuing near Arizpe, but the search for other gunmen was suspended overnight out of concern for the safety of the officers participating.

He said federal police are expected to arrive today to assist in the investigation.

Citing unnamed sources, El Imparcial reported that three soldiers and police officers and at least 10 of the suspected gunmen were killed. The newspaper reported at least 15 others people have been arrested.

During the gunbattle with the armed assailants, state police were able to free four other people abducted by the gang, including one police officer and three Cananea residents, said state prosecutors' spokesman Jose Larrinaga.

In a statement released earlier Wednesday, Sonora Gov. Eduardo Bours declined to speculate on a motive for the slaying of the four policemen in his state, but Mexico has seen a wave of attacks on police, military and intelligence officials as the government battles drug-trafficking gangs.

The assailants drove 10 to 15 vehicles into the city of Cananea and detained the police, who were in two patrol cars, the Sonora state police said in a news release.

The bullet-riddled bodies of the policemen, along with 50 spent cartridges, were found on the side of a road hours later. Another policeman, a gas-station owner and an unidentified Cananea resident also were abducted and were still missing at the time the statement was released.

Mexican authorities said the bodies of the four policemen were discovered hours after a group of more than 40 heavily-armed assailants left two other officers badly beaten near a highway.

The pair managed to recover and report that the suspects' caravan was headed toward Cananea, about 95 miles southeast of Tucson.

The five other officers on duty set out to investigate in two patrol cars, according to Cananea's municipal police spokesman.

Later that morning, the four policemen were found along the side of the Imuris-Cananea road, the Sonoran state police said in a news release.

The killings came as northern Mexico grapples with an outbreak of violence. On February 26, the drug-related violence claimed the life of Agua Prieta Police Chief Ramon Tacho Verdugo. He was gunned down as he left his office. Since then three other Cananea police officers have been killed.

Everyone hopes for the safe return of Fermín Aguilar Leyva, the missing officer, said Rosy Dupont, a Cananea police clerk.

"We don't know if he is alive or dead," she said.

Dupont identified the policemen killed as Ramón Soto Grajeda, José Ramón Bracamontes Estrada, Luis Fernando León Mercado and Rogelio González Orozco.

Police presence is heavy in town and on the outskirts as various law enforcement units assist in the search for clues to the killings and abductions, Dupont said.

"People are very worried," she said, referring to the many calls she and colleagues have fielded.

Sonora Gov. Bours said the convoy had traveled about 180 miles across the state without being detected until the group was a few miles from its target.

Bours said the attack appeared to be related to a dispute between rival cartels, and that some of those involved had come from the Mexico-Texas border state of Tamaulipas. The governor also said that he had previously asked for federal help to investigate police officers in Cananea.

Tamaulipas is home to the Gulf cartel and its paramilitary enforcement arm, the Zetas. The Gulf cartel is in a fierce turf war with the Sinaloa cartel based on the Pacific Coast.

Bours said the Federal Preventive Police, which patrols federal highways, did not detect the convoy or alert state authorities.

"The information we have is that they (the gunmen) took a federal highway, which is worrisome," Bours said. "In fact, we had information that we tried to check with the Federal Preventative Police, and the Federal Preventative Police said there were no reports from last night, all of which we are going to investigate."

Gricelda Torres, who lives in Cananea, said state and federal police could be seen all over the area.

"We have an army base here, so there are also many soldiers patrolling," she said. "It took me a long time to get to work."

Torres is a receptionist at a hotel near the motel where the assailants abducted the person whom police did not identify Wednesday.

Torres said there has been a lot of fear in Cananea since the earlier police killings in March.

"The streets are deserted, the restaurants that used to be full at night are empty," she said

The violence hits close to home for Torres, she said. The missing policeman is her former neighbor.

"I just hope nothing bad happens to him," she said. "But what I keep asking myself is, 'why is this happening to our police officers?'"

The Associated Press contributed to this report