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Mexican troops to intervene in deadly urban war

© Photo: AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-01-14

Federal troops will take over security in a large area of a western Mexican state after days of gun fights between masked vigilantes and members of one of the country’s most powerful drug cartels.

Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said federal forces with support from state police will patrol an area in Michoacan State, known as Tierra Caliente, the home base of the Knights Templar drug cartel.

“Be certain we will contain the violence in Michoacan,” Osorio Chong said, urging the vigilante groups to withdraw from the area so federal forces could take control.

Since late last year, vigilante groups in the state have moved deeper into territory controlled by the Knights Templar cartel and they now are converging on Apatzingan, considered one of gang’s main strongholds.

The vigilantes’ advance has raised the risk of a bloody urban battle in the city.

The vigilantes formed almost a year ago, arguing that local police were unwilling or unable to curb the cartel's violence and extortion rackets.

The federal attorney general’s office said in a statement it had sent 11 helicopters and 70 federal investigators and officers to help return law and order to the state. Some federal police and troops have been sent to the region in recent months because of the unrest, but have generally not intervened.

Congressman Ernesto Nunez of the Green Party, who was at the meeting, said the federal government is looking to have members of the self-defence groups join police departments. “Those who they see really have the [police] vocation, those who really love their communities, will be invited to join the police,” Nunez said.

Estanislao Beltran, a leader of a vigilante group, rejected the idea of giving up their guns or becoming police officers.

“If we give up our weapons without any of the drug cartel leaders having been detained, we are putting our families in danger because they will come and kill everyone, including the dogs,” Beltran said. He said none of the members of the vigilante groups aspire to be police officers. “What we are doing is fighting for the freedom of our families,” he said.

Streets empty

No clashes were reported in the Tierra Caliente region Monday, but almost every store was closed in Apatzingana. There were few people on the street and little police presence. Shopkeepers said they were afraid to open after gunmen believed to be working for the drugs cartel threw firebombs at several of the city’s businesses and city hall over the weekend.

A report circulated among residents that the cartel had threatened to burn down the city of 100,000 people, Javier Cortes, spokesman for the diocese of Apatzingan, told AP.

“They are saying they want to leave Apatzingan in ashes,” Cortes said. “This will end when the self-defence groups enter the city.”

On Sunday, hundreds of members of one vigilante group entered another town, Nueva Italia, and disarmed the local police as part of what they said is a campaign to free communities from the control of the Knights Templar cartel. Shooting broke out almost immediately in and around the town square. Only one injury was reported.

Opponents and critics contend the vigilantes are backed by a rival cartel. The groups deny that.

Osorio Chong said federal authorities will go after anyone acting outside the law and called on self-defence group members to return to their villages.

The federal government has said the civilian vigilante groups are operating outside the law. They carry high-calibre weapons that Mexico only allows for military use. But government forces have not moved against the groups and in some cases have appeared to be working in cooperation with the vigilantes.

President Enrique Pena Nieto, who just ended his first year in office, has sought to shift the public focus away from grinding violence and onto a series of economic reforms he has pushed through a divided congress. But a steady stream of killings that plagued his predecessor’s term continues, and the deepening crisis in Michoacan is beginning to cast doubt on his ability to maintain order.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)

Date created : 2014-01-14

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