News Column

Mexico Keeps 12 Police Officers in Jail in Ambush of US Vehicle

Aug. 27, 2012

Tim Johnson

Mexican authorities on Monday ordered 12 federal police officers to remain jailed as a criminal probe deepened into why they ambushed a U.S. Embassy vehicle last week in a hail of bullets that left two Americans wounded.

Attorney General Marisela Morales said that a court had accepted a request that the officers be kept in jail for 40 days, a key step toward filing criminal charges.

"We are asking for this detention to have the time necessary to carry out an exhaustive investigation," Morales said.

The detentions came in the ambush Friday of an armored Toyota SUV belonging to the U.S. Embassy. It was carrying two U.S. Embassy employees and a Mexican navy captain to a naval installation about 35 miles south of the capital. The embassy vehicle was cut off by another vehicle carrying armed men, who opened fire when the embassy vehicle tried to flee. At least three and possibly five other vehicles joined in the attack, according to Mexican news reports.

Only after reinforcements from the navy came did the federal police attack on the vehicle halt. Press reports said more than 50 bullets struck the embassy vehicle.

The two wounded Americans were hospitalized Friday in Mexico City, but their whereabouts and conditions were unknown Monday. The U.S. Embassy refused to comment. Last week, the embassy declined to identify the U.S. agency the two worked for or to say why they were traveling to the naval facility, which an embassy statement referred to as a training facility.

The ambush underscored possible criminal connections of the federal police, a force of some 35,000 officers that U.S. officials have helped vet and train as a key force against brutal organized gangs.

At least one of the 12 federal police officers detained appears to have received training from the United States. Francisco Humberto Segovia Dominguez, a 35-year-old native of southern Chiapas state, is mentioned in a U.S. diplomatic cable dated Nov. 18, 2008, as among officers approved for small arms and basic explosives training. The cable, obtained and released by WikiLeaks last year, said the embassy had "no credible evidence of gross violations of human rights" by Segovia or any other officer listed.

Morales did not specify what crimes the detained officers might eventually be charged with. She said the officers had not explained why they fired on a vehicle with diplomatic license plates that offered no threat, although Morales said some of the officers cited confusion, presumably over whether the vehicle carried gangsters.

"For the moment, no charge or line of question has been discarded," she said, adding that prosecutors are in "total collaboration" with the Mexican navy and U.S. officials.

Except for a statement more than 12 hours after the shooting, the U.S. Embassy has remained silent, declining to provide a detailed account of what took place. Mexican authorities have also kept details of the attack largely secret.

Mexican news reports, though, say that many of the federal police were out of uniform and operating in unmarked vehicles when they carried out the initial attack and subsequent pursuit of the embassy vehicle, first on a dirt road, then on a two-lane highway leading to the resort city of Cuernavaca.

The area were the ambush took place has been in dispute between various powerful drug gangs, including remnants of the Beltran Leyva syndicate. The Proceso newsweekly said the U.S. Embassy vehicle was helping Mexican marines try to pinpoint Hector Beltran Leyva, a fugitive kingpin of the gang.

Lawyers for the detained police officers say their clients were on an undercover operation a day after a kidnapping in the area of a functionary from the National Institute of Anthropology. They did not explain why they fired on a vehicle with diplomatic license plates that offered no threat.

One lawyer, Marco Aurelio Gonzalez Flores, told Excelsior newspaper that he is worried that unfounded charges will be leveled against the officers because of the high-profile nature of the attack.

"They say that they might even charge them with international terrorism due to the pressure coming from foreigners," he told the paper.



Source: (c)2012 McClatchy Washington Bureau Distributed by Mclatchy-Tribune News Service.