US & World

7 dead in Mexico amid violence during anti-cartel operation

File photo of police forces patrolling the streets of Guadalajara, Mexico.
File photo of police forces patrolling the streets of Guadalajara, Mexico.
Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images

At least seven people died as flames and gunfire erupted around the western Mexico state of Jalisco on Friday when a military operation targeting a violent drug cartel was launched at the start of a three-day holiday weekend.

Suspected cartel members stopped buses and trucks to block key highways in the state capital of Guadalajara and other cities, snarling traffic on a day Mexicans took to the road in droves.

Gunmen fired on a military helicopter, killing three soldiers and forcing it to make an emergency landing about 150 miles (250 kilometers) southwest of Guadalajara. Ten soldiers and two federal police officers were injured and three soldiers remained missing, a defense ministry statement said.

The statement said the helicopter was participating in the anti-cartel offensive known as Operation Jalisco.

Jalisco Gov. Aristoteles Sandoval said at an afternoon news conference that the violence around the state was a reaction to the operation, which he said was designed to "get to the bottom of and to be able to arrest all the leaders of this cartel, of this organization."

Sandoval did not name the cartel, but authorities have been locked in an increasingly bloody battle with the Jalisco New Generation cartel. Last month, cartel gunmen killed 15 state police officers in an ambush that was the bloodiest single attack on Mexican authorities in recent memory.

One week earlier, cartel gunmen attempted to assassinate the state security commissioner and on March 19 they killed five federal police officers. Authorities have said those attacks were revenge for state forces killing a cartel leader.

On Friday, Sandoval said Operation Jalisco, which had been announced by federal authorities earlier in the day, had the goal of arresting all members of the cartel.

Sandoval said there were a total of seven deaths Friday, but did not specify the circumstances or the victims. Later, state spokesman Gonzalo Sanchez said through his Twitter account that the dead included three soldiers, one state police officer, two suspected criminals and one civilian.

The governor counted 29 road blockades around the state affecting 19 municipalities. He said 11 banks and five gas stations had been attacked and the state remained under a "code red" protocol. Fifteen people had been arrested and there were four armed confrontations, he said.

President Enrique Peña Nieto said through his Twitter account that he lamented the soldiers' deaths in the course of their work in Jalisco.

In December, Peña Nieto said Jalisco was considered one of the most unstable states in terms of security, along with Tamaulipas, Guerrero and Michoacán. He said then that those states would be prioritized in anti-crime efforts, but the violence there has continued.

Early in the day, the Jalisco state prosecutor's office used its Twitter account to ask residents of Guadalajara to remain calm as authorities responded to the road blockades. It said officials also were coordinating to extinguish fires and regain calm in other parts of the state's interior.

Such blockades are a common cartel response to the arrest of important members or are used to foil police and military operations. In recent weeks, burning vehicles and blockades in the state of Tamaulipas along the Texas border were attributed to factions of the Gulf cartel following the capture of some local leaders.

But there have not been so many blockades erected simultaneously across so many parts of a state in recent memory.

Associated Press writer Elizabeth Rivera reported this story in Guadalajara and Christopher Sherman reported from Mexico City.