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Federal forces regain some ground in troubled Michoacan

Mexican federal police check men in the streets of Apatzingan, Michoacan State, Mexico, on January 15, 2014
Mexican federal police check men in the streets of Apatzingan, Michoacan State, Mexico, on January 15, 2014

Mexican federal police and army troops had three cities in the country's west under control Wednesday after seizing a drug cartel's bastion and clashing with vigilantes refusing to disarm.

Thousands of troops and police held their ground in the Michoacan state cities of Apatzingan (population 120,000), seen as a bastion of the Knights Templars cartel, Uruapan (315,000) and Mugica (45,000).

"These are strategic points" since the government has "intelligence showing that organized crime groups operate out of them," said Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong.

In Apatzingan, about 2,000 federal agents disarmed 200 members of the town police suspected to work for the Knights Templars.

Early Wednesday, just a block from the city hall, two men smashed the windows of a pharmacy.

"They broke the window, came in, sprinkled gasoline around and then fled the scene," police commander Humberto Martinez told AFP.

Mexican Federal Police members stand guard outside a pharmacy that was attacked by organized crime gangs in Apatzingan, Michoacan State, Mexico, on January 15, 2014
Mexican Federal Police members stand guard outside a pharmacy that was attacked by organized crime gangs in Apatzingan, Michoacan State, Mexico, on January 15, 2014

But after the new incident, "we still cannot trust promises that public safety will be enforced," said Estanislao Beltran, one of the militia leaders.

The turmoil in Michoacan has become the biggest security challenge for President Enrique Pena Nieto's 13-month-old administration, undermining his pledge to reduce drug violence.

Soldiers arrived Tuesday in towns held by vigilantes who have battled the cartel for the past year, leading to a confrontation the civilian militia said killed four people, including a child.

The federal show of force in Michoacan's rural region known as Tierra Caliente, or Hot Country, came a day after the government urged vigilantes to lay down their arms, saying it would take over security.

Civilians first took up arms in February 2013 to oust the Knights Templar from the region, saying local police were either colluding with gangs or unable to deal with the violence and extortion rackets.

Since then, officials have alleged that at least some civilian militias were backed by a cartel, with critics noting that they used unlawful assault rifles that gangs usually own.

Analysts, however, say the government was happy to let vigilantes police the state until now, a risky tactic that could have replicated Colombia's experience with ultra-violent paramilitary militias.

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