Mexican troops fan out across state hit by drug war

Hundreds of heavily armed soldiers set up roadblocks on major highways in the home state of President Felipe Calderon on Saturday where drug gangs have stepped up attacks on Mexican security forces, Reuters reported.

Troops toting automatic weapons and wearing ski masks to shield their identity searched vehicles in the western marijuana-growing state of Michoacan for signs of drug smuggling after the government ordered 5,500 soldiers and police deploy by land, sea and air to the area.

The surge, one of the biggest in the three-year drug war, came after drug gangs targeted federal police in recent days in retaliation for the capture of a high-ranking member of the local La Familia (The Family) cartel.

In a brazen move last week, the cartel dumped the tortured and blood-smeared bodies of 12 police in a heap by a remote highway -- the latest victims of tit for tat violence that has killed some 12,800 people since Calderon took office in 2006.

A video allegedly showing the policemen being stripped, beaten and executed was briefly posted on YouTube, reported El Universal newspaper.

"We've reached a point where the local authorities are tapped out, and so unfortunately it's necessary to call in extra forces to try and restore the peace to Michoacan," said Gerardo Gomez a resident of the capital city Morelia where suspected drug gang hitmen threw two grenades into a packed crowd celebrating Mexico's independence day last September.

ENORMOUS POWER

La Familia has grown in strength to the point where it controls elements of local police and even politicians in Michoacan, which has become a flashpoint of violence in the raging drug war worrying Washington and investors.

Calderon is from the large state of sparsely inhabited mountains hiding drug farms and labs, and it was the first place he decided to send troops.

But the recent wave of revenge attacks on security forces show La Familia -- which is battling the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel known as the Zetas for control of Michoacan -- has been little weakened by the military crackdown.

La Familia appears to have gained enormous power in the state. Troops rounded up 10 mayors and a string of police chiefs in May accused of working for the cartel in one of the biggest single corruption sweeps of the drug war.

The cartel follows a quasi-religious code of conduct that bars its members from taking drugs or drinking alcohol and has contacted the media in the past to claim its aim is to protect Michoacan from Zeta hitmen.

"The criminals leave briefly but return after the sweep ... Given that the problem only keeps getting worse, I believe (the operation) will ultimately not succeed," said a housewife in Morelia, declining to give her name.

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