Mexico forces clash with vigilantes
Confrontation leaves at least three dead in Michoacán state
ANTúNEZ — The Mexican government moved in to quell violence between vigilantes and a drug cartel in Michoacán state, but the campaign turned deadly early yesterday with a confrontation between soldiers and civilians who witnesses say were unarmed.
There were widely varying reports of casualties, but Associated Press journalists saw the bodies of two men said to have died in the clash, and spoke to the family of a third man who was reportedly killed in the same incident. No women or children died, contrary to earlier reports by the spokesman of a self-defence group.
The Attorney General’s Office said it could not confirm a number of dead. The Interior Ministry said it had no information about reports that soldiers had fired on an unarmed crowd.
“This is how they plan to protect the community? We don’t want them,” said Gloria Pérez Torres, grieving over the body of her brother, Mario, 56, who was killed in the clash.
Antúnez was calm again yesterday, and self-defence groups remained armed and in control.
In the city of Apatzingán, hundreds of federal police offices travelling in pickup trucks with machines guns mounted on the top, armoured vehicles and buses amassed in the city square as residents watched.
“The federal police have been here for years but they don’t do anything,” said a man sitting on a bench at the plaza who identified himself only as Iván.
Security analyst Alejandro Hope, who formerly worked for the country’s intelligence agency, called the government’s strategy in Michoacán a “disaster.”
After initially arresting the vigilantes months ago, the federal government appeared to be working with them recently. The army and Federal Police have provided helicopter cover and road patrols while the self-defence groups attacked the cartel, but never intervened in the battles.
“Last week they were protecting the vigilantes,” said Hope, director of security policy at the Mexican Competitiveness Institute. “Secretary Osorio practically said they were useful ... now they’re going to put them down with firepower and bloodshed?”
The government doesn’t agree with that assessment, said an official with the Interior Ministry who was not authorized to speak to the press by name.
“It’s a strategy that’s being adjusted, modified based on the demands of what is happening on the ground,” the official said.
The government sent more troops and federal police late Monday to retake an area known as the Tierra Caliente after days of violence between the vigilantes and the Knights Templar cartel.
Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong urged the vigilantes to put down their arms and return to their home communities, saying the government would not tolerate anyone breaking the law.
Osorio Chong announced the new strategy following a weekend of firefights as the vigilantes extended their control to the communities of Antúnez, Parácuaro, and Nueva Italia. Burning trucks and buses blocked highways. Two bodies were found hanging from a bridge.
The late Monday night confrontation in Antúnez occurred after townspeople were called to meet a convoy of soldiers who they were told were coming to disarm the self-defence group. Witnesses said the civilian group did not carry guns, but as they blocked the military convoy, some soldiers fired into the crowd.