The Mexican military says its troops were attacked a day after residents in a town dominated by a drug cartel claimed soldiers fired on a protest and wounded several people.
Army patrols around the town and a couple of other villages in the western state of Michoacan were attacked on Saturday four times with explosives, homemade armoured cars, and gunfire that wounded 10 soldiers, the defence department said on Sunday.
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The army accused townspeople of acting as the “social base” for the Jalisco drug cartel, which has been trying to make inroads into Michoacan. Soldiers detained six protesters and nine suspected cartel members while confiscating nine rifles and tactical gear with Jalisco cartel logos, the army said.
The clash occurred in an area where the Jalisco cartel is fighting a bloody turf war with gangs from Michoacan. The two sides have used trenches, sharpshooters, and bombs dropped by drones in battling each other. Increasingly, civilians have found themselves on the front lines of the fighting.
The main incident involved protesters from the Jalisco-dominated town of Lomas Blancas. They say their anger stems from what they see as government policy favouring the Michoacan-based Viagras cartel. The Jalisco cartel has encouraged – some say forced – people to join the protests.
Soldiers are in a difficult position in Michoacan. The government strategy has been to repel attempts by the Jalisco cartel to gain territory in the state, but do little or nothing about the Viagras, who set up roadblocks to extort money from residents.
Soldiers have apparently been ordered just to keep rival cartels apart, but that angers townspeople in Jalisco-dominated towns such as Loma Blanca because soldiers do not prevent the Viagras from operating.
The area raises limes and cattle, and the Viagras gang has imposed a “war tax” on outbound shipments of those products and on inbound supplies.
Protesters, who have faced off with soldiers before, are demanding the army open the roads and act with equal force against both cartels.
The protesters provided video of parts of the clash, showing demonstrators and soldiers engaged in shoving, shouting and rock-throwing on both sides. In the video, detonations can be heard, but those may have been tear gas canisters or warning shots.
Protest organiser José Francisco Helizondo said several protesters were wounded by live fire.
Video of one of the men appears to show shrapnel or shotgun pellets in his leg. Officials said those wounds may have been caused by explosives.