(Recasts, adds security analyst comment)
By Tomas Bravo
MEXICO CITY, Dec 18 (Reuters) - The former governor of the Mexican state of Jalisco was shot dead early on Friday in a restaurant bathroom in the beach town of Puerto Vallarta, one of the most high profile political killings since Mexico embarked on its "War on Drugs" in 2006.
Jalisco state officials said Aristoteles Sandoval was shot in the back by an unidentified assailant while his security detail were outside. A shootout erupted as his bodyguards began moving Sandoval to hospital.
Mexico is struggling to tame raging violence across the country, with Jalisco one of the epicenters of internecine cartel warfare that last year drove murders to an all-time high with 34,670 homicides recorded.
Sandoval's 2013-18 term as governor was overshadowed by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), which rose from obscurity to become one of the most powerful in Mexico, leaving a trail of death and defiance behind it.
Today the CJNG competes with the Sinaloa Cartel of imprisoned kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman for control of much of the drug trade inside Mexico as well as to the United States.
Jalisco state attorney general Gerardo Octavio Solis said the 46-year-old Sandoval had been with three other people at the restaurant and was gunned down at around 1.40 a.m after going to the bathroom.
Sandoval had 15 bodyguards assigned to him, officials said, though local media reports suggest about half were on duty. Solis told Mexican radio one bodyguard was seriously wounded in the gunfight.
The attorney general said the restaurant had "manipulated" the crime scene, cleaning up fingerprints and taking security cameras in an apparent attempt "to evade justice."
He said investigators believed 8 to 10 suspects were part of the attack, but did not indicate who was responsible. A federal official said authorities suspected CJNG involvement.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador offered his condolences and vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice.
While low-level political murders are not uncommon in Mexico, it is rare to see powerful governor-level figures killed.
Sandoval's murder is likely to heighten tensions ahead of mid-term elections due on June 6, 2021. With his killing the Jalisco cartel will have unnerved the political class in the state, analysts said.
"They are constructing this reputation that they can kill top politicians at state level in case it is necessary," said Eduardo Guerrero, a security analyst from Lantia Consultores.
Sandoval's term in Jalisco got off to a bloody start, with his minister for tourism shot dead in state capital Guadalajara by suspected CJNG gunmen just a week after he took office.
More murders and clashes with security forces followed. Authorities said the gang bought off thousands of police as it gradually extended its reach across Mexico.
Sandoval's murder may have been intended as a warning for his successor, Governor Enrique Alfaro, who has been battling the Jalisco cartel.
"The message is: give in or negotiate with the Jalisco New Generation cartel, or you will have the same fate as Sandoval," added analyst Guerrero. (Reporting by Tomas Bravo, Raul Cortes and Laura Gottesdiener; additional reporting by Drazen Jorgic and Dave Graham; Editing by Alistair Bell and Grant McCool)
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