Scenes of mayhem have flared up again in Mexico’s troubled western state of Michoacan, putting the security spotlight back on a restive region that the government has struggled to tame. While the focus has recently been on the presumed murder of 43 students in the neighboring state of Guerrero, the authorities are facing new challenges in the equally troublesome region of Michoacan.
Eleven people died last month in a gunfight between two feuding factions of vigilante forces that were formed to fight drug cartels and were later deputized by the government into a “rural force.” Authorities later arrested two prominent leaders of the vigilante movement, which was formed by lime and avocado farmers in 2013 to combat the Knights Templar drug cartel.
A new deadly clash erupted on Tuesday between federal forces and civilians in Apatzingan, a former Knights Templar stronghold. Officials say at least nine people died after federal police and soldiers took back control of City Hall from a group that had been occupying it since December.
Alfredo Castillo, the special federal security envoy to Michoacan, said eight civilians died during a shootout between federal police and gunmen who had ambushed a police convoy that was towing vehicles that had been stolen by the group. Another man died when he was run over by a car during the confusion, while 44 people who had been carrying guns in the City Hall were arrested, Castillo said.
The federal official has not identified the group that occupied the municipal building, blaming unspecified “interest groups” for the conflict in Apatzingan. Mexican media say the group was “Los Viagras,” who claim to be vigilantes but have been linked to the Knights Templar.
At least five may have died in the crossfire, he said at a news conference Wednesday in which he released security video footage showing pick-up trucks packed with civilians chasing the convoy and then running away. A new case of police brutality would bring more woes to the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto.
Municipal police have been implicated in the abduction of the 43 students after they allegedly handed them over to drug gang members, who confessed to slaughtering the young men. In a separate case, three soldiers are facing murder charges in connection with the killing of 22 gang suspects in central Mexico.
Despite deploying thousands of soldiers and federal police in Michoacan last year, the government decided to legalize the vigilante militias in May, giving them salaries and handing them uniforms and assault rifles. But following last month’s deadly shootout between rival militias, Castillo said the rural force would be replaced as part of a nationwide police reform.
“Many of them have properly accomplished their work, others not,” Castillo said, conceding that the rural forces had problems. Alejandro Hope, a security expert and former intelligence official, said the divisions within the civilian militia groups show the “legal deficit” of the rural force that was created. “It’s not clear if they are established law enforcement forces or an irregular armed group,” Hope said.
Jaime Rivera, political science professor at Michoacan University, said disbanding the militias could be tough. “There are risks of more clashes, that some resist the disarmament,” he said.
Gerardo Rodriguez, a security consultant, said the federal government should recall its special envoy and “return all powers to the (state) government” so that it can plan the future instead of reacting to emergencies.