CULIACAN, Mexico — Gunbattles between rival gangs killed 18 people in a northeastern Mexican town Monday, a day after seven police officers and an inmate died in an ambush of a convoy transporting prisoners in western Mexico.
The fighting in the town of Abasolo erupted Monday morning and left at least 18 people dead, the Tamaulipas state government said in a three-sentence statement that offered no details. It said state and federal security forces had arrived in the town to restore order and investigate.
The shooting came a month after shootings in the nearby town of Padilla also killed 18 people, several of them innocent bystanders.
Tamaulipas has been wracked by a turf war between the Zetas and Gulf cartels, and information on violence in some of the smaller towns is notoriously scarce. Often official confirmation does not come for hours or days, leaving residents to cower in their homes and communicate through social media.
Tamaulipas residents sent Twitter messages about Monday’s shootings hours before the government confirmed the bloodshed. Some tweets warned people to stay indoors and others demanded official information. Under constant threat from drug gangs, the local media in Tamaulipas often ignore drug-gang violence completely.
In northwestern Sinaloa state, meanwhile, gunmen swarmed a convoy transporting two prisoners, shredding three police vehicles with bullets and killing seven officers and one inmate, Sinaloa state Attorney General Marco Antonio Higuera said Monday. Six officers and the second inmate were wounded.
Attackers travelling in about 20 vehicles caught the police convoy in crossfire Sunday near the city of Guasave, Higuera said.
“The patrol vehicles were destroyed. It was practically a massacre,” he said. “Initial reports indicate there were 1,200 shell casings at the scene.”
The three state police patrol vehicles were travelling to the state capital of Culiacan when they came under fire from attackers who apparently lay in wait on a highway. Higuera said the officers fought off a first attack but were later caught in concentrated fire from a larger number of vehicles.
Federal police, meanwhile, said a newly captured leader of the Zetas drug cartel revealed that the group has a nonaggression pact with three other gangs: the Juarez, Beltran Leyva and Arellano Felix organizations. While the four gangs are not known recently to have been fighting major turf wars with each other, it was the first mention of a formal truce between them.
The alleged Zetas leader, Marcos Carmona Hernandez, was arrested Monday in the southern state of Oaxaca, said Ramon Pequeno, the federal police anti-narcotics chief.
Hernandez, 29, allegedly took over command of Zetas operations in Oaxaca after the Jan. 17 arrest of his reputed predecessor, Flavio Mendez Santiago. Pequeno said Hernandez is suspected of several kidnappings and murders and allegedly had the collaboration of corrupt state and municipal police.
Pequeno said Hernandez revealed the non-aggression pact to police, the latest insight into Mexico’s drug underworld of shifting alliances.
The agreement, however, appeared to be confirmation of reality more than a game-changer. The four gangs in the pact have a common enemy: the powerful Sinaloa cartel led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, one of the world’s most-wanted drug lords.
Jorge Chabat, a Mexican expert on the drug trade, said the pact would be difficult to corroborate but was not surprising.
“It’s normal that the cartels seek at certain times to ally themselves because it would be irrational to fight against everybody,” he said.
Pequeno did not say when the gangs reportedly agreed to their truce.
The Zetas, once a group of hit men, have become a potent gang in their own right, their reach extending from northeastern Mexico to Central America.
Mexican authorities say the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels made a pact last year to destroy the Zetas.
Sinaloa is fighting the Juarez cartel in the northern state of Chihuahua, a war that has turned the border city of Ciudad Juarez into one of the world’s deadliest.
Both the Beltran Leyva and the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix gangs have been on the decline since the arrest or killing of most of their top leaders. U.S. and Mexican officials say the splintering of the Arellano Felix gangs has allowed Sinaloa to make significant inroads in the border city of Tijuana.
The Beltran Leyvas were once part of the Sinaloa cartel and bitter enemies of the Zetas. Since splitting off from Sinaloa in 2008, however, the Beltran Leyva gang has struggled to survive.
Its remnants are believed to be fighting in several states south of Mexico City, including Guerrero, home to the Pacific coast resort city of Acapulco.
Three severed heads were found Monday in plastic bags outside a tunnel that connects central Acapulco to the outskirts of the city.
The victims were all male, the Guerrero state Public Safety Department said in a statement.
A note left at the scene said the beheadings were revenge for the killing of a man who was shot dead during an attempted kidnapping.
Police also announced the capture of a suspected prominent drug gang member who allegedly oversaw kidnappings, extortion, bribery and local drug distribution for the “independent cartel of Acapulco,” a group that splintered from the Beltran Leyvas.
Benjamin Flores Reyes, alias “The Godfather,” was arrested Sunday after a six-month investigation, the federal Public Safety Department said in a statement.
Flores studied criminal psychology for a time during 15 years he spent living in the United States, the statement added. He returned to Mexico about three years ago and allegedly signed up with the organization formerly led by Edgar Valdez Villarreal, known as “La Barbie,” who was arrested last year.
The government of President Felipe Calderon has brought down an unprecedented number of cartel bosses since launching a military offensive against drug traffickers in December 2006.
However, violence has soared as Mexico’s drug cartels have become increasingly splintered and aggressive. More than 35,000 people have been killed nationwide in the past four years.