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Drug hitmen kill eight policemen in Mexico

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A convoy of suspected drug hitmen ambushed a group of traffic police patrolling a Mexican highway on Monday, killing eight officers in the latest strike against security forces.

The gunmen attacked the police in the marijuana-producing state of Sinaloa in western Mexico, home to Mexico’s most powerful drug cartel, just 50 miles from the state capital Culiacan, the Sinaloa state prosecutor’s office said.

“They were surprised by a convoy of three or four cars ... (The police) were driving on the highway when this gang caught up with them and began shooting with automatic weapons,” a spokesman for the state prosecutor’s office said.

The attack underscores the challenges for Mexican police as the government seeks to provide officers with the weaponry and training needed to take on brazen cartels whose arsenals range from assault rifles to rocket launchers.

More than 29,000 people have died in drug violence since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched a frontal assault on drug cartels in December 2006, sparking turf wars between rival groups and shootouts between criminals and authorities.

Local police, who are often underpaid and lured into working for cartels as hitmen to supplement their salaries, are also victims of the growing drug violence. More than 2,000 police officers have been killed since Calderon took office, the government says.

The Sinaloa cartel, run by Mexico’s most wanted man, Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman, uses the state as its base of operations to grow heroin poppies and marijuana, cook methamphetamine in mega-labs and smuggle South American cocaine to the United States.

Reporting by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Bill Trott