Gangsters use vehicles to ram into Mexico prison and free nine inmates

Mexican gangsters used a convoy of vehicles – including a truck with homemade armour-plating – to ram their way into a prison before opening fire at guards and rescuing nine inmates.

Several other vehicles were also set on fire in the spectacular plot targeting the jail in the central city of Tula. The escapees include José Artemio Maldonado Mejía, alias “El Michoacano”, the leader of a local crime organisation known as Pueblos Unidos.

One prison guard and one police officer were injured in the attack early on Wednesday, according to Hidalgo state authorities.

Local media reported that the gang also detonated several car bombs, but authorities said they were still investigating how the vehicles caught fire.

The use of car bombs has been rare in Mexico, but vehicles are sometimes commandeered and torched to hinder police and military responses.

“An armed group burst into the prison aboard several vehicles, and it is worth noting that near the prison, two vehicles were burned as part of the criminal group’s operation, as a distraction,” said Simón Vargas, Hidalgo state interior secretary.

Soldiers, police and national guard launched a massive manhunt.

Tula is the site of a massive Pemex refinery and criminal groups have increasingly tapped petroleum pipelines to siphon off gasoline – which is later fenced to motorists or sold to petrol stations – often with threats for failing to purchase.

Pueblos Unidos, led by El Michoacano, is thought to be one of the main groups behind petrol theft in Hidalgo state.

Mexican criminal groups have often raided prisons over the past 15 years, bursting into the facilities or impersonating security forces to free inmates.

The attack came as Mexico marks the 15th anniversary of then-president Felipe Calderón’s declaration of a militarized war on drug cartels, after which thousands of troops were deployed on the streets.

Calderón sends in the army

Mexico’s “war on drugs” began in late 2006 when the president at the time, Felipe Calderón, ordered thousands of troops onto the streets in response to an explosion of horrific violence in his native state of Michoacán.

Calderón hoped to smash the drug cartels with his heavily militarized onslaught but the approach was counter-productive and exacted a catastrophic human toll. As Mexico’s military went on the offensive, the body count sky-rocketed to new heights and tens of thousands were forced from their homes, disappeared or killed.

Kingpin strategy

Simultaneously Calderón also began pursuing the so-called “kingpin strategy” by which authorities sought to decapitate the cartels by targeting their leaders.

That policy resulted in some high-profile scalps – notably Arturo Beltrán Leyva who was gunned down by Mexican marines in 2009 – but also did little to bring peace. In fact, many believe such tactics served only to pulverize the world of organized crime, creating even more violence as new, less predictable factions squabbled for their piece of the pie.

Under Calderón’s successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, the government’s rhetoric on crime softened as Mexico sought to shed its reputation as the headquarters of some the world’s most murderous mafia groups.

But Calderón’s policies largely survived, with authorities targeting prominent cartel leaders such as Sinaloa’s Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

When “El Chapo” was arrested in early 2016, Mexico’s president bragged: “Mission accomplished”. But the violence went on. By the time Peña Nieto left office in 2018, Mexico had suffered another record year of murders, with nearly 36,000 people slain.

“Hugs not bullets”

The leftwing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador took power in December, promising a dramatic change in tactics. López Obrador, or Amlo as most call him, vowed to attack the social roots of crime, offering vocational training to more than 2.3 million disadvantaged young people at risk of being ensnared by the cartels.

“It will be virtually impossible to achieve peace without justice and [social] welfare,” Amlo said, promising to slash the murder rate from an average of 89 killings per day with his “hugs not bullets” doctrine.

Amlo also pledged to chair daily 6am security meetings and create a 60,000 strong “National Guard”. But those measures have yet to pay off, with the new security force used mostly to hunt Central American migrants.

Mexico now suffers an average of about 96 murders per day, with nearly 29,000 people killed since Amlo took office.

The current president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, was an ardent critic of Calderón’s use of the military, but has increasingly turned to the armed forces for public security roles. López Obrador ran on the slogan “hugs, not bullets”, but Mexico’s homicide rate has stayed stubbornly high and large swaths of the country remain under drug cartel control.

The cartels are increasingly deploying weapons such as explosives dropped from drones and launching brazen mobilisations to rescue captured colleagues.

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