A clash between the army and gang members at a ranch near Mexico’s northern city of Monterrey left at least 25 gang members dead, the military unit involved in the firefight said on Thursday.
Two soldiers were wounded and three people the gang had kidnapped were set free in the action near Ciudad Mier, on the US border, the IV Military Region command said in a statement.
The shootout, it added, took place after an aerial search detected “gunmen outside a building” in the city in Tamaulipas State, a border region which has seen an escalation of violence in recent months, including the massacre of 72 migrants last week.
Media reports said the military stormed a training camp set up by suspected drug gang members, but the military statement made no mention of this.
The military command said 23 assault weapons and 23 vehicles were seized at the ranch, including two “painted to look like military vehicles.”
Officials blame a spate of shootouts, kidnappings and killings in northeastern Nuevo Leon and neighboring Tamaulipas on disputes between the Gulf gang and its former allies the Zetas.
A wounded Ecuadoran survivor of the migrant massacre in Tamaulipas, which was discovered last week, pointed the finger at the Zetas. He said he and another three migrants were able to flee the massacre.
Shortly after that gruesome discovery, a police officer and an investigator on the case disappeared, a local mayor was shot dead, and several explosives attacks rocked a local television network and a police station.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who is under increasing fire for his military crackdown on organized crime launched three-and-a-half years ago, on Thursday defended his plan of action, blaming the surge in violence across the country to the crackdown’s success.
“The capture or killing of top criminal leaders has made these criminal organizations more desperate,” he said in his fourth state of the nation address.
He said 125 criminal leaders have been captured or killed by his administration.
“This confrontational process weakens the criminal gangs, but also generates great unrest in the rest of society,” said the president in response to increased criticism of what some consider his heavy-handed anti-crime policy.
“It’s an ever increasing bloody war between organized crime groups fighting for territory, markets and routes,” said Calderon, who deployed 50,000 troops across the country to fight the drug cartels.
Mexico was on the road to economic recovery, Calderon said, as Latin America’s second economy picks up from hard knocks to tourism and commerce set off by the financial crisis and the H1N1 outbreak.
Calderon peppered his annual speech with references to independence heroes two weeks before massive bicentenary celebrations and two years before the end of a six-year term so far overshadowed by drug violence.
Rights groups have slammed alleged abuses by the Mexican military under the crackdown and the government’s failure to curb growing attacks, particularly on migrants.
Many in the opposition, and even some in government ranks, have been critical of the crime policy.
The annual state of the nation report said authorities had made 34,515 drug-related arrests in the past year and confiscated more than 34,000 weapons, more than US$72 million and 133 million pesos (US$10.2 million) in cash.