MORELIA, Mexico – Gunmen blockaded a western Mexican city Thursday with cars and buses they stole from motorists and then torched in a second day of violence for the region that has left at least three people dead, including an 8-month-old baby.
The gunmen arrived at all five roads leading into Morelia and fired into the air to force drivers and passengers from their vehicles, said Jonathan Arrendondo, a spokesman for the attorney general's office of Michoacan state, where the city is located.
An Associated Press reporter saw a 75-year-old man being treated for a bullet wound to the leg at one of the entry points. Witnesses said the man had been a passenger on a bus and was struck by the bullet as he tried to flee.
Such blockades have become a common cartel tactic in Mexico's raging drug war.
The practice started earlier this year in northeastern Mexico, where the Gulf and Zetas drug gangs are locked in a fierce turf war, and recently spread to Michoacan, home state of President Felipe Calderon.
Michoacan is a stronghold of La Familia cartel, which is known for beheadings and brash attacks against government security forces. It was the second time in less than a month that gunmen have blocked roads leading into Morelia, the state's picturesque colonial capital.
The blockades came a day after three people were killed in a shootout between suspected La Familia gunmen and federal police in Apatzingan, another city in the state.
It was unclear if the blockades and shootout were related.
One of those killed was an 8-month-old baby who was riding in a taxi with his mother, the attorney general's office said in a statement Wednesday night. The other was the teenage daughter of a former Apatzingan mayor, state police investigator Luis Mendez told Milenio television Thursday. The girl was also riding in a car caught in the crossfire and was not deliberately targeted.
A police officer was also killed, the federal Public Safety Department said in a statement Thursday.
The shootout began when federal police investigating a tip about the presence of armed men came under fire from suspected La Familia gunmen, the statement said. Another group of gunmen fired on civilian vehicles and used the cars as barricades, but it was unclear if the cars were those in which the baby and teenager were riding. The federal police statement did not mention the civilian deaths.
Mendez, the state police investigator, said authorities were trying to determine whether police or cartel gunmen fired the bullets that killed the minors.
The Public Safety Department statement said a third group of gunmen ambushed another federal police unit trying to come to the aid of their colleagues. The gunmen blocked a highway leading into Apatzingan to prevent the police from advancing.
The emergence of blockades in Michoacan have coincided with the arrest of several key La Familia leaders.
One of those suspects, Sergio Moreno Godinez, said under police interrogation last month that the cartel is in decline. He confirmed the authenticity of a letter, e-mailed to journalists and dropped on the streets of several towns, saying the cartel wants to disband and negotiate a truce with authorities. The government has ignored the offer.
La Familia, which officials say is Mexico's main trafficker of methamphetamine, captured nationwide attention in 2006 by rolling severed heads onto a disco floor in the city of Uruapan.
Shortly afterward, Calderon sent thousands of federal troops and police into Michoacan.
He has since deployed thousands more to other cartel strongholds in Mexico, and drug gang violence has surged, claiming more than 28,000 lives.
On Thursday, reports emerged that reputed La Familia leader Servando Gomez appears on the Mexican government's payroll as an elementary school teacher in Arteaga, a rural town in Michoacan.
Payroll documents posted on the Education Department's website show that Gomez, alias "La Tuta," was paid about $4,000 during the first three months of the year for teaching at Melchor Ocampo Elementary School.
But the Education Department, responding to a report on the documents in El Universal newspaper, said in a statement that payments to Gomez have been suspended since June 2009, when the department conducted "a thorough review of its payroll."
In northern Chihuahua state, meanwhile, six people were gunned down Thursday morning by the side of a highway leading south of the capital, also called Chihuahua.
Witnesses told police that gunmen drove up, forced the six men out of the car, shot them and fled, said Carlos Gonzalez, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office.
And in the resort city of Acapulco, a traffic cop was found shot to death on a road, his hands bound.
Associated Press Writers Istra Pacheco in Mexico City and Sergio Flores in Acapulco contributed to this story.