A high-sided construction truck and a white SUV pulled into the path of Mexico City's police chief just as dawn was breaking Friday on the capital’s most iconic boulevard and assailants opened fire with .50-caliber sniper rifles and grenades on his armored vehicle.
The cinematic ambush involving two-dozen gunmen left chief Omar García Harfuch wounded with three bullet impacts and shrapnel. Two members of his security detail were killed, as was a woman who happened to be driving by.
The high-powered armament and brazenness of the attack suggested the Jalisco New Generation Cartel and hours after the attack, García blamed them via Twitter from the hospital.
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“This morning we were attacked in a cowardly way by the CJNG,” García tweeted, using the Spanish-language acronym for Mexico’s most violent criminal group.
“Two colleagues and friends of mine lost their lives,” García wrote. “I have three bullet wounds and various pieces of shrapnel. Our nation has to continue standing up to cowardly organized crime. We will continue working.”
His office later said he was undergoing surgery.
Federal Security Secretary Alfonso Durazo, referring to García’s tweet blaming the Jalisco cartel, said in a news conference that “this is one of the hypotheses that the Mexico City prosecutor’s office is investigating.”
Durazo said Mexico’s intelligence agency apparently had information that the cartel was planning an attack, but did not offer additional details. He said García was shot in the shoulder, collar bone and the knee.
Mexico City Attorney General Ernestina Godoy Ramos said on Twitter that 12 suspects were arrested and that her office was investigating the attack.
The attack was meticulously planned and involved a total of 28 gunmen hired three weeks before, according to Ulises Lara, the spokesman for the Mexico City prosecutors office. It was so closely studied that three separate possible ambush points were set up on major thoroughfares, including one — which wasn’t used — in the heart of Mexico City, one block from the Independence Monument.
Lara said the gunmen had been divided into four different cells and were given ski masks and guns the night before. They were taken to the ambush points at 4 a.m. to lie in wait for their target.
Lara said the 12 suspects detained after the shooting included one Colombian, and men from five different states — Jalisco, Guerrero, Nayarit, Chihuahua and Michoacan — as well as Mexico City.
However, Lara did not say who the suspects said had hired them, or how much they were paid.
Later, capital police arrested an alleged head of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel’s hitmen Friday, suggesting he could have been the mastermind of Friday’s attack, said a Mexico City police official who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The official said police arrested José Armando Briseño on the east side of the city. Nicknamed “Cow,” he is allegedly the gang’s chief of hitmen in the city of Tonalá in Jalisco.
Jalisco is the same gang that U.S. prosecutors said tried to buy belt-fed M-60 machine guns in the United States and that once brought down a Mexican military helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade. In October, cartel gunmen ambushed and killed 14 state police officers in Michoacán.
But such a high-profile attack in Mexico's capital is a blow to a federal government struggling to respond to record levels of violence across the country.
The gang has established a nearly national presence, from the white-sand beaches of Cancun to Mexico City and the country’s most important ports, as well as key border cities traditionally controlled by other cartels.
Friday’s attack came two weeks after rumors swirled for a day that Jalisco’s leader Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, better known as “El Mencho,” had been captured or killed — though officials later denied that. Oseguera is the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s most-wanted fugitive, with a $10 million price on his head.
In March, U.S. authorities arrested hundreds of Jalisco operatives in raids across the country. They said the gang controls between one-third and two-thirds of the U.S. drug market.
“This kind of attack is not normal, they crossed a line. You have to read it like an exceptional act,” said security analyst Alejandro Hope. “You have two very serious attacks in two weeks. First, the murder of the federal judge and now the attack on the city’s police chief.”
Earlier this month, a federal judge and his wife were killed at their home by gunmen in the western state of Colima. The judge had handled several cases related to organized crime.
If it is the Jalisco gang, the government would have to target them like it did with the hyper-violent Zetas gang between 2010 and 2013, Hope said. They have become a systematic threat to government authority. There should be “an exceptional response, dismantle the criminal group ... like they did at the time with the Zetas.”
Hope said the Jalisco gang has long had a presence in the capital. In this case, they likely recruited local gunmen through their alliances, he said.
The attack, which lasted barely a minute, occurred along a stretch of Mexico City’s grand Paseo de la Reforma that is home to foreign embassies and large houses surrounded by walls. Grainy security camera footage showed at least seven men standing up in the bed of the truck and firing in a blaze of light while more gunmen fired from the ground.
Later, forensic technicians began marking hundreds of shell casings that littered the street. Relatives of the bystander who was killed embraced and cried.
While authorities rarely like to name cartels, especially in Mexico City, the Jalisco gang’s name has been coming up more and more.
In May 2019, local news media reported that federal authorities had arrested the gang’s Mexico City boss. In July, Jalisco was blamed for the murder of two Israeli men in an upscale Mexico City mall and eventually Mexico City police tracked one of the killers to Guadalajara, capital of Jalisco state. Earlier this year, alleged Jalisco operators warned in a video of cleaning the criminal competition out of two Mexico City bproughs.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador offered his support and solidarity to Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum and the city’s police forces.
“It has to do without a doubt with the work he is carrying out to guarantee peace and tranquility,” López Obrador said.
Durazo, who was travelling with the president, condemned what he called a “cowardly” attack. “It’s clear that the work of the (police) is touching strong criminal interests,” he tweeted.
Garcia, 37, is a former head of the Federal Police investigation division and from 2016 to 2019, he led the branch of the federal Attorney General’s Office that leads investigations and arrests of organized crime members.
Before being named Mexico City police chief, he spent several months as the mayor’s intelligence coordinator.
Hope, the analyst, said Friday’s attack could have stemmed from an earlier period in García’s career. “It could have something to do with a story years back, it could be some kind of revenge for something he did,” he said.
Associated Press writer Mark Stevenson and AP photojournalist Rebecca Blackwell contributed to this report.