MEXICO CITY -- Six Mexican police have been assassinated in two separate incidents in the drug-battleground states of Durango and Tamaulipas, government officials reported Thursday.
The motivations for the attacks, which occurred hundreds of miles from each other, are not known, but they are notable for the stature of their targets and underscore the continuing instability that President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto will inherit when he takes office in December.
The three victims in Tamaulipas -- discovered late Wednesday in a bullet-riddled Chevrolet in the troubled border town of Nuevo Laredo -- were high-ranking members of the state police force, including the director of police strategy, the director of analysis, and the chief of armaments, according to the Tamaulipas state prosecutor’s office.
In Durango on Thursday, the three men fatally shot as they went to a downtown bank branch in the city of Gomez Palacio were members of the Federal Police, a force that outgoing President Felipe Calderon has been trying, with mixed success, to remake as a band of untouchable elites by purging untrustworthy officers and hiring thousands of fresh-faced, rigorously vetted college graduates.
The northeastern border state of Tamaulipas, long considered one of country’s most dangerous, is being watched particularly closely after the arrests this month of two of the top leaders of the once-powerful Gulf cartel. It is widely feared that the arrests will spark a power struggle within the cartel or among rival drug groups jockeying to fill the power vacuum.
That could affect police in a number of ways. Honest officers could be put in harm’s way. Corrupt ones, of course, could become part of the action as shot-callers or foot soldiers.
The Tamaulipas state police force was given a makeover in 2011. Its members were sent to some cities, including Nuevo Laredo, to take over functions from municipal police forces deemed too corrupt to serve.
In May, a group of attackers believed to be members of the ultraviolent Zetas drug gang bombed and fired on a Nuevo Laredo hotel that was being used as a barracks for the state police. Eight officers were wounded. The Zetas are a former armed wing of the Gulf cartel that later split off, and they became bitter rivals of their former employers.
On Sept. 12, authorities arrested top Gulf cartel capo Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, alias “El Coss.” Two days later, 16 bodies were discovered, nine of them on a bridge in Nuevo Laredo, and seven in the city of San Fernando.
The western state of Durango, a marijuana- and poppy-producing region, has also been a center of gruesome drug violence, much of it tied to power plays by rival drug factions.
The Durango state prosecutor’s office said the three Federal Police officers were between 33 and 41 years old and were heading into the bank about 11 a.m. when they were “intercepted” by men in an number of vehicles who opened fire.
No suspects had been arrested in either of the shootings as of Thursday afternoon.
Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party is widely believed to have cut deals with drug lords when it ruled the country in an authoritarian manner from 1929 to 2000. But the president-elect has vowed not to negotiate with the capos and has promised to continue to take the fight to them as Calderon has. More than 55,000 people have been killed since Calderon began a military-led crackdown on the drug cartels in December 2006.
--Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.
Photo: Truckloads of Mexican Federal Police ride through Matamoros, Mexico, on July 9, 2012. The municipal police force has been disbanded and government troops have limited control of streets and highways. The Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which borders Texas, is a major battleground between the Gulf cartel and the paramilitary-style Zetas. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times