MEXICO CITY (AP) — Two government helicopter gunships opened fire on 10 vehicles fleeing a luxury beach condo complex during this week's gun battle at the Gulf of California resort of Puerto Penasco, Mexican authorities said.
New details emerged about the raging gun battle that ensued after federal forces tried to capture a reputed top lieutenant of the Sinaloa drug cartel who was staying at a beachfront villa.
Mexico's federal police said late Thursday that two government Blackhawk helicopters fired on at least 10 vehicles as they tried to flee the complex with drug cartel operator Gonzalo Inzunza. The vehicles were hit by gunfire in the Wednesday battle and were "left useless, causing the assailants to disperse." Five presumed cartel gunmen were killed in the battle.
Police found 14 sniper or assault rifles at the scene, which one federal official confirmed were of heavy caliber. Two federal officers were wounded in the gunfight.
The bullet-ridden, burned-out vehicles were left just outside the complex, which federal police did not identify. But Puerto Penasco city spokesman Cristobal Garcia confirmed Friday that the shootout actually began inside the Bella Sirena complex, where Inzunza was staying at a beachfront villa. The resort has units for both sale and rent, but it was unclear if the reputed capo owned or was renting the unit in which he was staying.
Garcia insisted that "these are not people who live in Puerto Penasco ... perhaps they were here on a holiday."
But federal police said Inzunza, 42, "has set up his center of operations in Puerto Penasco," to run drug-trafficking networks that stretched through at least seven other states, from the Caribbean coast state of Quintana Roo in Mexico's southeast to Baja California in the country's northwest.
They said Inzunza "had a personal relationship with Ismael ("El Mayo") Zambada," long viewed as the No. 2 leader of the Sinaloa cartel, after Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. Inzunza's body was not found at the scene, and federal officials said they believed the fleeing gunmen took his dead or wounded body with them, as cartel gunmen sometimes do with fallen gang members or leaders.
Federal police said late Thursday that an analysis of blood stains found in the vehicles show that Inzunza was among those killed or wounded.
Drug cartel shootouts at Mexico's beach resorts generally have been rare, though some have been reported in the past in the Pacific coast resort of Acapulco. Prosecutors in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz said Friday they had found seven bodies dumped on a beach just south of the seaside city of Veracruz. They did not provide identities or a cause of death.
In the past, top drug traffickers have sometimes been caught, killed or almost caught at beach resorts, but they appear to have largely left resorts and their tourists alone. No foreigners, visitors or residents were harmed in the Puerto Penasco raid.
Raul Benitez, a security expert at Mexico's National Autonomous University, said Inzunza, who had a 3-million-peso ($230,000 reward) on his head, may have chosen Puerto Penasco not for the sun and sand but because it is located about an hour from the U.S. border.
The resort is located in Sonora state, which has been relatively free of the drug violence that has plagued other northern border states. The Sinaloa cartel may have chosen the Sonora-Arizona area as a base because other border areas are under the control of rival cartels or feeling the effects of government crackdowns, authorities said.
"It appears that this guy (Inzunza) was opening a very important border (trafficking) corridor," said Benitez. "Puerto Penasco is an area with a lot of movement, a lot of traffic, and it's perfect for setting up a corridor to sell cocaine, heroin or marijuana and ship it into the United States," Benitez said, noting the government "is shutting off the other big corridors in Texas and California."
"The Sonora corridor was the one left for the Sinaloa cartel, and the federal government is trying to prevent Sinaloa from setting down roots there," Benitez said.