CULIACAN, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexican police need bigger guns to fight increasingly violent drug gangs, a federal police chief said on Wednesday, after drug hitmen killed seven officers in the northern city of Culiacan.
"We need machine guns," said Gen. Rodolfo Cruz, the federal police force's link with the army in their joint 18-month-old war on Mexico's powerful drug cartels.
"Pistols are just for showing off, they are good for nothing," he told reporters in Culiacan, as 200 reinforcements arrived to restore security a day after the seven officers died in a spray of bullets while searching a drug hide-out.
Culiacan and other northern cities have seen a dramatic surge in drug violence this year, marked by murders of police officers and grisly decapitations.
Rival cartels are fighting over smuggling routes into the United States. Their elite and well-armed hitmen also shoot at the police and troops that President Felipe Calderon has deployed against them since December 2006.
Cartel hitmen are often arrested with the likes of grenades, powerful machine guns and rocket launchers capable of bringing down helicopters. Those weapons dwarf the pistols and rifles usually carried by police and the army.
"On the other side there are AK-47 rifles and automatic weapons with steel points that can penetrate armor, even bullet-proof vests," said Cruz.
Mexico has made several complaints to Washington that Mexican drug gangs easily buy high-powered weapons legally in the United States and smuggle them south across the border.
Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora said the jump in violence showed the crackdown was working but he saw no quick end to the bloodshed, predicting the army would remain deployed in drug hotspots for another two years.
"We have curbed the power of these organizations, reducing the number of their hitmen, bosses and weapons," he told Mexican television.
"This has broken down the structures and that is being expressed with violence between gangs because they have to compete for a smaller pie."
Calderon has made crushing drug cartels the centerpiece of his presidency but violence has grown since he sent out some 25,000 troops and police officers against them.
Some 1,380 people have died in drug-related murders this year, a faster pace than in 2007 when there were 2,500 deaths during the entire year.
Medina Mora said higher prices for cocaine and methamphetamines on U.S. streets showed the crackdown was shutting off supply routes and hurting cartel revenues.
Additional reporting by Cyntia Barrera Diaz; Editing by Catherine Bremer and John O'Callaghan