The firecrackers that crackled in the plaza of the central city of Morelia late Monday in celebration of Mexico's independence day served as a prelude to a nastier set of explosions. When the smoke cleared, more than 100 revelers lay bleeding on the paving stones. The clearly stunned state governor Leonel Godoy, who had moments earlier been presiding over the festivities, declared the attack the work of Mexico's increasingly violent drug gangs. By Tuesday, as annual parades marched somberly through the Mexican cities, at least eight victims of the blast had died from their wounds, and several more were fighting for the lives.
If Godoy's initial assertion is correct, the bombing would mark a worrying escalation in the wave of drug related violence that has ravaged Mexico this year. Heavily armed cartels have carried out thousands of brutal killings, including mass beheadings and machine gun massacres of their rivals. They have also assassinated hundreds of police, soldiers and mayors. But they have never before staged mass-casualty bomb attacks targeting civilians in public spaces. "This is open terrorism against the civil population," said Ricardo Aleman, columnist for Mexico's El Universal newspaper. "It claims lives with the objective of sowing terror and sending a message to the government."
Godoy said Tuesday that officials in his Michoacan state had received threats warning of an Independence Night attack. But, he explained, state officials had expected the attack to come not in Morelia, but in one of the state's other cities such as the busy coastal port of Lazaro Cardenas. The bombing came as the governor was ringing the bell in Morelia's colonial square, a tradition carried out across to Mexico to remember the launching of the war of independence against Spain in 1810. Witnesses reported that a bulky man in black threw a grenade-like object into the crowd, and then apologized to people next to him. Godoy said he first thought it was a firecracker until he saw the bodies. A second blast struck moments after the first.
"This is a brutal act against innocent people," Godoy said. "There were families and children who went to enjoy the shout for independence. Among them were the poorest people who have no other entertainment. This was a very cowardly act." Independence parades were canceled in the state on Tuesday, while thousands of soldiers poured into the city center. Explosive experts said they were still determining exactly what devices had caused the blast.
The use of terror against civilians echoes a tactic used by Colombian drug gangs, who have long sold their cocaine to the Mexican crime families. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Medellin cartel responded to a government crackdown by killing hundreds of civilians with bombs placed on street corners, cars and even one passenger jet. Mexican gangs first started using bombs last February, when an alleged hitman blew himself up in a botched attempt on a police official. In July, two botched car bombs caught fire in the northern state of Sinaloa. The drug gangs have long used grenades in fighting with police and rivals.
Home to President Felipe Calderon, Michoacan state is used by cartels to harvest and traffic narcotics, including marijuana and opium. In recent years, the region has spawned a particularly brutal gang known as "La Familia," who once threw five severed human heads onto the dance floor of a disco. When Calderon took office in December 2006, the bespectacled lawyer began a national crackdown against organized crime, starting the campaign in Michoacan, where he sent soldiers into mountains to burn crops and seize safe houses. And the cartels have responded with a violent counteroffensive, killing more than 500 police, soldiers, judges and other officials during Calderon's 21 months in power.
Addressing independence day celebrations on Tuesday, Calderon called for national unity against the cartels, and said he would not retreat from his offensive. "It was a miserable attack against defenseless people, celebrating our national fiesta with peace and pride. When they try and sow fear for their own ambitions, it is not one person or group who suffers the consequences but all Mexicans," he said from Mexico's towering Independence monument. "We need unity. We need to all rally round the government to stop these criminals."