Armed vigilantes have seized a drug cartel bastion in western Mexico, sparking a shootout between the two groups, an official said.
Members of so-called self-defence groups entered the town of Nueva Italia, Michoacan on a campaign they say is designed to liberate towns from the control of the Knights Templar cartel. Opponents and critics say the vigilantes are backed by a rival cartel, something the groups deny.
The vigilantes arrived in Nueva Italia late on Sunday morning in a caravan of large trucks, surrounding the City Hall and disarming local police. An AP journalist on the scene witnessed citizens initially welcoming them.
But firefights broke out almost immediately in and around the centre square. Only one injury was reported by midday, but gunfire could be heard around the city as the Mexican military stayed outside, guarding the road into town.
On its Facebook page, the Tepalcatepec vigilante force said around 100 pick-up trucks entered Nueva Italia and a “light confrontation took place at the entrance, everything is fine.”
There were no federal police or uniformed authorities inside the town, though violence between vigilantes and alleged cartel members has racked Michoacan for almost a year, and President Enrique Pena Nieto’s government has already sent thousands of police units to the state.
The growing civilian militia movement, which first emerged in Michoacan nearly a year ago, has seized more communities in recent weeks in their bid to oust the Templars from the state.
Michoacan state Governor Fausto Vallejo gave a brief statement saying he has formally asked the federal government for more help to quell the violence, and announced a meeting on Monday in the state capital to lay out a strategy to reclaim peace.
Vallejo said he formally asked Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong on Friday for more federal forces, “given insufficient state and municipal police”.
The self-defence groups claim that local and state police are in the employ of the Knights Templar.
Violence in the state has flared in the last several days as vigilantes have been on a march, taking over the towns of Paracuaro and Antunez and advancing towards the farming hub of Apatzingan, said to be the cartel’s central command.
The federal government has said the civilian groups are operating on the margins of the law, and they carry high-caliber weapons that Mexico only allows for military use. But government forces have not moved against them and in some cases appear to be working in concert with them.
Rumours circulate that some self-defence groups have been infiltrated by the New Generation cartel, which is reportedly fighting a turf war with the Knights Templar in the rich farming state that is a major exporter of limes, avocados and mangoes.